At least that’s what elementary school teachers believe. Just when we thought that our schools were finally catching up with their students by teaching keyboarding instead of old-fashioned handwriting, a Newsweek report reveals that most teachers actually think kids who can copy out their letters in a big, round hand “produced written assignments that were superior in quantity and quality and resulted in higher grades – aside from being easier to read.”
Dr. House: despite neat handwriting, not a good role model for our youth (and not a real doctor, just plays one on TV – hey, everybody lies).
The example of House notwithstanding, this glorification of handwriting is just another example of the growing disconnect between education and the needs of actual writers, and I’m not just saying this because my own handwriting is illegible. It made sense for 19th-century American schools to push handwriting as an essential skill because legible handwriting was necessary to secure an office job. The schools weren’t aiming very high if their goal was to prepare children for a life of clerking, but that’s apparently why they also taught such “essential” critical-thinking skills as alphabetizing and coloring inside the lines to third-graders like me back in 1952.
Unfortunately, when offices switched to typewriters and adding machines as the primary mode for producing business documents in the early 20th century, the schools, mired in last-century thinking, maintained their focus on the Palmer method, torturing generations of children with hour after hour of slants and loops even though what they really needed for office work was 50 words per minute.
A nation of future office workers practicing Palmer method push-pulls at the blackboard ca. 1930 – despite there being few opportunities for writing on a vertical surface outside of the classroom (but see below for one such opportunity).
Eventually teachers began to figure out that there wasn’t much demand for on-the-job handwriting, and penmanship instruction claimed ever-decreasing blocks of classroom time. A 2005 survey by a major publisher of handwriting textbooks showed most schools spending an hour a week or less on cursive writing, and many have ditched handwriting altogether in favor of working at the computer, which students are happier to do not because it will one day get them something nice in a white-collar 9 to 5, but because many are already spending lots of their non-school time online.
Now, however, some educators want to turn back the clock, convinced, as Newsweek puts it, that “handwriting fluency is a fundamental building block of learning.” Fans of handwriting argue that when handwriting becomes automatic, children write faster, better, more, and they’ll learn faster, better, more as well.
Handwriting, like typewriters and computers, is a writing technology, and just as any writing technology can become automatic once we get used to it, any writing technology can also help us learn.
In the 1930s, researchers put portable typewriters on thousands of grade school children’s desks, proving that children who typed all their schoolwork scored up to 7% higher on standardized tests than control groups of nontypists. Despite these findings, schools didn’t rush to put the machines in classrooms across America: it was the Depression, after all, and no one had money to spend on high-tech writing machines, plus, while typing became automatic for the children, it turned out to be too hard to teach the teachers how to type.
This 1932 study demonstrated the benefits of typing for learning; not only did typists score higher in all their school subjects, their teachers also claimed that typing made these students more creative (plus, the noise of the machines didn’t distract them from their reading).
Maybe typing never came naturally to a lot of kids, but my own students, the first generation to come of age in the digital age, insist that writing on computers is more automatic, more natural, more effective, for them, than writing with pencil or pen. It's certainly that way for me, though I started with pens and graduated to typewriters before I got my first PC 25 years ago.
Most of my students have never seen a typewriter, though they’ve heard stories about these writing dinosaurs. Nonetheless, they insist that their computer keyboards are wired more directly to their thoughts than any other writing tool could ever be. They don’t want to go back to the bad old days of handwriting any more than they want to write on clay tablets like ancient Sumerian scribes. Even if our schools aren't ready to enter the 21st century in terms of their approach to writing, there's no reason why they can't at least adopt a 20th-century view, accepting handwriting as a curiosity or an art form, not an essential work skill or a tool for unlocking the mysteries of learning.
Tagging is one of the few writing jobs today that demands a skillful handwriting.
Copying Torah is another, and you can do it sitting down.