Treasures in the Mail and why Handwriting still Matters

Posted by martin.parnell |

According to the website, January 23rd. is National handwriting day.

National Handwriting Day was invented by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA).  "The purpose of National Handwriting Day is to alert the public to the importance of handwriting. It is a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting. “

Last Friday, my wife and I received a handwritten letter from our 12 year old granddaughter Autumn. It’s a delight to see how her handwriting has changed over the years, from her first effort to write her name, with its backward letters and upper scale and lower scale letters mixed together, to this recent account of how school is going and her new interests.  Despite the fact that we regularly connect with her on Skype, there was something wonderful about receiving a letter from her, in the mail. But one noticeable aspect of her letter is that it is printed i.e. not cursive

My wife is a great believer in the importance of keeping the art of cursive handwriting alive. Some of her most precious possessions are notes and letters from her Mum, who had beautiful handwriting.  

In December 2014, The Guardian newspaper published an article by Anne Chemin on the question “Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?” In it, she states that “Computers may dominate our lives, but mastery of penmanship brings us important cognitive benefits, research suggests.” And that “Some neuroscientists think that giving up handwriting will impact on how future generations learn to read.”

At first sight the battle between keyboards and pens might seem to be no more than the latest twist in a very long story, yet experts on writing do not agree: pens and keyboards bring into play very different cognitive processes. “Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,” says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. “Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. “

Some neuroscientists think that giving up handwriting will affect how future generations learn to read. “Drawing each letter by hand substantially improves subsequent recognition,” Gentaz explains.

Marieke Longchamp and Jean-Luc Velay, two researchers at the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Aix-Marseille University, have carried out a study of 76 children, aged three to five. The group that learned to write letters by hand were better at recognising them than the group that learned to type them on a computer. Learning to write by hand does seem to play an important part in reading.  

In a paper published by the journal Psychological Science, two US researchers, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, claim that note-taking with a pen, rather than a laptop, gives students a better grasp of the subject. The study focused on more than 300 students at Princeton University. It suggested that students who took longhand notes were better able to answer questions on the lecture than those using a laptop. For the scientists, the reason is clear: those working on paper rephrased information as they took notes, which required them to carry out a preliminary process of summarising and comprehension; in contrast, those working on a keyboard tended to take a lot of notes, but avoided what is known as “desirable difficulty”.

In France, in the early 2000s the ministry of education instructed schools to start teaching cursive writing when pupils entered primary school. “For a long time we attached little importance to handwriting,” says school inspector Viviane Bouysse. “But, in 2000, drawing on work in the neurosciences, we realised that this learning process was a key step in cognitive development.”

From August 2016, in Alabama, USA, a State law (Lexi’s Law) requires cursive handwriting to be taught by the end of third grade, in all state schools and all students should become proficient in writing words and sentences in cursive.

Cursive writing will begin in second grade with how to write lower-case and upper-case letters and will continue to be practiced in fourth and fifth grades.  When reaching out to local parents and teachers about Lexi's Law, many were positive explaining the benefits they have seen in teaching cursive writing to their children and students, especially those with learning disabilities.

Andrea Overman teaches at Alabama Christian Academy and said there is benefits to learning cursive writing before print. "With cursive all letters start on the baseline, which is the same place and therefore less confusing," Overman said. "Individual words are connected with spaces between words, which helps with word recognition. It requires less muscle control for their children who have fine motor issues.

Regardless of the scientific debate about the importance of handwriting in the development of cognitive skills, it is still something most of us will still do almost every day, whether it’s jotting down something on a post it note or  writing a shopping list, it is still something very useful and also something which can give pleasure to others. Think of the joy you get in receiving a Birthday card in the mail, or a postcard from abroad.

Handwriting Analyst, Julia Layton states that “Every person in the world has a unique way of writing.” She explains that we develop characteristics in our handwriting and this is why a sample of someone’s handwriting can be used as forensic evidence in court.  It would be a pity to lose some of that individuality, when so many aspects of communication are becoming standardized.

I for one will celebrate handwriting day by making notes for my next Blog and my wife will be writing a reply, by hand, to our granddaughter.

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