Writing by Hand Improves Cognitive Development

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Are you old enough to remember when “penmanship” used to be taught in public schools? We are. We can recall specific classes that focused on teaching the skills of handwriting: both manuscript (printed) letters and cursive. Entire classes were devoted to this skill, with gold stickers on certificates presented to those who produced legible and careful handwriting.

By the 1990s, when our son started school, the word “penmanship” had disappeared from the school curriculum. We kept bringing it up, because legible handwriting did not come easily for him. Some children with good fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination get the hang of it naturally, but for many children with special needs, that is not the case. Without proper intervention, these children will not have good handwriting skills when they become adults.

Why is Handwriting Important?

Recent studies by neuroscientists have established a positive link between learning to write by hand and learning to read in young children. The studies show that similar mental development doesn’t happen when a child learns by typing or tracing letters. This link between handwriting and cognition continues even into adulthood. For example, in the classroom taking notes by hand shows a much greater memory retention of the material than typing notes on a laptop.

Interestingly, the quality of the handwriting, or the difference between writing in manuscript letters or cursive, doesn’t make as much of a difference as the act of actually putting “pen to paper.” According to one expert, “there is something special about handwriting that is distinct from other motor movements.”

The School’s Response

In elementary school, we would ask the school staff to help our son with his handwriting and they would give us a blank look. We would point out that when he was older, he would need to take notes for classes, fill out job applications or medical forms, and write many other documents. He would need to be familiar with cursive handwriting so he could read other people’s writing. At the very least, he would need to be able to write legible manuscript letters if he couldn’t master cursive.

Their response? “Don’t worry, we’ll teach him keyboarding.” They did not see handwriting as an important skill. The only sustained handwriting instruction he got in those critical early years was occupational therapy for fine motor skills provided through his IEP. This helped, but there was no follow through in the general education classroom.

Of course, keyboarding is an important skill in today’s computer literate society, but we strongly feel that every child with the appropriate ability should be exposed to handwriting instruction. Even in an age when everyone “thumbs” text messages on their smart phones, handwriting is still a basic life skill with important benefits for brain development.

A Real Life Example

We experienced an example of the importance of handwriting two years ago, when our son was preparing to take the Graduate Record Exam. He faced a potential obstacle when he read the following on the GRE website:

You will be required to write in cursive (not print) and sign a confidentiality statement at the test center. If you do not complete and sign the statement, you cannot test and your test fees will not be refunded.

Since our son had never learned cursive, reading about this requirement produced a lot of anxiety for him. Fortunately, at the test site he was told that it was acceptable to print the confidentiality statement in manuscript letters, so he was able to take the exam. In fact, the cursive requirement has recently been dropped from the statement. But this is just one example of the importance that society still places on handwriting skills that your child may face in the future as an adult.

The website of the Campaign for Cursive contains other real world examples similar to this and points to peer-reviewed research indicating that the benefits of penmanship include improved neural connections in the brain and better fine motor skills. According to this website, schools today have given up teaching handwriting, offering it only in optional “art” classes.

What Can You Do?

It will take the pressure of parents at both at the local and state levels to demand that schools teach penmanship again. The Campaign for Cursive website has information on contacting your legislators to let them know that you want to see penmanship taught in schools.

Of course, persuading your School Committee and your legislators to change will take time. Meanwhile you can:

  • Read to your preschool child as much as possible. Bedtime is an excellent time for this activity. Demonstrating an appreciation for the written word will motivate your child to learn about writing as well as reading.
  • Find out how your school teaches handwriting, and if available, sign your child up to take optional “art” classes in penmanship. This instruction should begin as early as possible, especially in combination with reading instruction.
  • If your child is in special education, ask for an occupational therapy evaluation to see if you can get services to improve the fine motor skills needed for legible handwriting.

Even in preschool, you should be helping your child master basic skills such as handwriting for success in life as an adult.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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