Classroom practice - Should handwriting be erased from schools?

10th October 2014 at 01:00
It may seem like an antiquated skill that is rarely used in adult life but research says there could be benefits in putting pen to paper

When was the last time you sat down with a pen and a piece of paper and wrote something? I'm not talking about the homework you marked last night, the birthday card you scribbled in the other day or the cheque you signed at the weekend. I'm talking about sitting down and composing a substantial piece of prose.

Such is the domination of the keyboard in modern times that you may have no idea.

What if you asked the same thing of your students? The question would have to be rephrased: have they ever sat down and written a substantial piece of prose on a piece of paper using a pen? It's likely that some won't have. Tablets, laptops and smartphones are increasingly being used in the classroom as study aids, so children are spending more time tapping on a keyboard or a screen than on developing their cursive style. And since the jobs that most of these children will have in the future will rarely - if ever - require them to write by hand, little seems to be wrong with this situation.

Yet on a purely practical level, ditching handwriting altogether is currently a non-starter.

"In school, handwriting is a necessity because at the end of the year the children have tests that are handwritten, so you have to teach handwriting whether you like it or not," says Karine George, headteacher at Westfields Junior School in Hampshire, which equips all of its pupils with iPads.

However, that does not mean that all schools are necessarily teaching handwriting as much as they should be.

"The difficulty we have is that handwriting isn't assessed. So it's being pushed out of the curriculum, because that curriculum is already overcrowded with things that are assessed," George says. "As a result, children are not being given the time they need to develop their cursive style and they're struggling to complete some of the written tests in time."

Mightier than the keyboard

There seems to be a mixed message here: the government wants proficiency in handwriting but fails to create the curriculum structure to achieve it. So what if that barrier was removed? What if tests were taken on digital devices instead?

The argument could then drift into a nostalgic romanticisation of handwriting. Carl Hendrick, head of research at Wellington College, a private school in Berkshire, fears this would prevent a clear discussion of the value of handwriting.

"Many teachers I know insist that a carefully scribed letter has far more impact than a `clinical' email," he explains. "This is similar to the valorisation of vinyl records over CDs or MP3s, with many music lovers, mostly over 40, swearing that Blood on the Tracks [by Bob Dylan] sounds better on vinyl, which of course it doesn't."

Hendrick says the debate shouldn't be about what is better from a purist's point of view but about which skills would be most beneficial for children to acquire. And in that regard, a growing body of research suggests that handwriting offers a number of benefits over typing.

Take the famous 2003 study from Cornell University in the US, in which one half of a lecture hall was given laptops and the other half received pens and paper. In post-lecture tests, those taking handwritten notes scored better than those with laptops.

This is largely because people type faster than they write by hand, says Danny Oppenheimer, professor of marketing and psychology at UCLA Anderson School of Management in California. "Although this may seem an advantage, and for certain tasks it is, there are times where being forced to slow down is actually helpful," he explains. "In our research, we found that people who took notes on laptops wrote down the professor's words verbatim, while those who took notes by hand summarised the professor's lecture in their own words.

"The latter approach is much more effective [for learning]. Of course, people could adopt that latter approach on laptops but we've found that they don't - even when they have been explicitly told to do so."

Recent research has found similar results. A 2012 study, for example, concluded that writing by hand improved cognitive processing and reading skills when compared with typing.

Adding finesse to fine skills

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia in the US, more and more research points to the fact that developing fine motor skills, including penmanship, at preschool age is a good predictor of a child's aptitude for skills such as reading and maths when they reach 5th grade (ages 10-11). However, despite this evidence he believes that the topic needs to be explored further before a firm judgement can be reached.

"What is handwriting offering - if anything - that children are not also getting when they are using keyboards?" Willingham asks. "Or is there something that children are getting from keyboarding that they are not getting from handwriting? That, to me, is a critical question."

It is difficult to provide an answer because most children in the world are taught handwriting. But the US could be poised to offer greater insight into the benefits - or otherwise - of handwriting in the coming years, Willingham says. The skill is being given a "cursory treatment" in many schools, with the teaching of handwriting declining nationwide since the 1970s, he explains. The majority of states (43 out of 50) are signed up to the nation's Common Core State Standards, which do not require the teaching of handwriting, leaving the decision to regional authorities.

The fallout from this shift won't be felt for another decade or so, but cognitive experts believe it may provide clarity on whether children should still be taught handwriting at school. In the meantime, the UK position on the issue is crystal clear - for the foreseeable future, at least.

"Being able to write by hand fluently and legibly is an important skill, at school and for later life. That is why pupils are taught handwriting in the new national curriculum [for England]," a Department for Education spokesperson says.

A spokesperson for England's schools inspectorate Ofsted adds: "As part of the judgement on the overall quality of teaching in primary schools, inspectors consider whether the teaching of handwriting is effective and whether pupils are applying skills they have learned across the curriculum. We have no evidence to suggest that the quality of handwriting is in decline."

Waiting for the last word

So whether teachers like it or not, handwriting is sticking around. And, although the skill is not formally assessed, it seems clear that it will be under scrutiny when Ofsted pays a visit. Whether that changes, as the performance of children who are not formally taught handwriting is tracked in the US, remains to be seen.

But research into the cognitive benefits of handwriting over typing suggests it should be given ongoing - and arguably greater - importance in UK schools until further evidence suggests otherwise.

What else?

Help older pupils to polish their handwriting with this practice booklet.

Try these varied activities for students who struggle with fine motor skills and handwriting.


Hembrooke, H and Gay, G (2003) "The laptop and the lecture: the effects of multitasking in learning environments", Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 151: 46-64.

Kiefer, M and Trumpp, N M (2012) "Embodiment theory and education: the foundations of cognition in perception and action", Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1: 15-20.


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