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The death of handwriting may be on the wall (but don’t worry, the brain will adapt)

The December issue of Miller-McCune magazine carries an intriguing (and nostalgic) article on the history of handwriting. The author, Anne Trubek, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College, has argued elsewhere that grade-school teachers should stop “brutalizing” children with endless drills on writing cursive.In the Miller-McCune article, she expands on that argument and also describes how emotional and moralistic people can be about handwriting.

Handwriting, of course, is not a naturally acquired skill, like talking or walking, but must instead be learned and practiced — a process that alters the brain’s organization. Writes Trubek:

About 6,000 years ago, the Sumerians created the first schools, called tablet houses, to teach writing. They trained children in Sumerian cuneiform by having them copy the symbols on one half of a soft clay tablet onto the other half, using a stylus. When children did this — and when the Sumerians invented a system of representation, a way to make one thing symbolize another — their brains changed. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf explains the neurological developments writing wrought: “The brain became a beehive of activity. A network of processes went to work: The visual and visual association areas responded to visual patterns (or representations); frontal, temporal, and parietal areas provided information about the smallest sounds in words …; and finally areas in the temporal and parietal lobes processed meaning, function and connections.”

In America, “a good hand” has long been perceived as a sign of intelligence, as well as of class and of moral righteousness (religiosity). Benjamin Franklin made the ability to “write a legible hand” one of the entrance requirements (along with being male) to the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Today, this linking of good handwriting to IQ still lingers, often to the detriment of bright students with poor penmanship. Writes Trubek:

While we once judged handwriting as religiously tinted, now secular, we transpose our prejudices to intelligence. The new SAT Writing Exam, instituted in 2006, requires test takers to write their essays in No. 2 pencil. Not only will those with messy handwriting be graded lower than ones written more legibly, but those who write in cursive — 15 percent of test takers in 2006 — received higher scores than those who printed.

Such prejudice is unfounded, reports Trubek:

Does having good handwriting signal intelligence? No, not any more than it reveals one’s religiosity. But many teachers make this correlation: It is called the “handwriting effect.” Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies handwriting acquisition, says that “teachers form judgments, positive or negative, about the literary merit of text based on its overall legibility.” Graham’s studies show that “[w]hen teachers rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in terms of legibility, they assign higher grades to neatly written versions of the paper than the same versions with poorer penmanship.” This is particularly problematic for boys, whose fine-motor skills develop later than [those of] girls. Yet all children are taught at the same time — usually printing in first grade and cursive in third. If you don’t have cursive down by the end of third grade, you may never become proficient at it.

Should we lament the death of handwriting? And will our neurons notice? Trubek thinks not:

When people hear I am writing about the possible end of handwriting, many come up with examples of things we will always need handwriting for: endorsing checks (no longer needed at an ATM), grocery lists (smartphones have note-taking functions), signatures (not even needed to file taxes anymore). These will not be what we would lose. We may, however, forsake some neurological memory. I imagine some pathways in our brains will atrophy. Then again, I imagine my brain is developing new cognitive pathways each time I hit control C or double click Firefox. That I can touch-type, my fingers magically dancing on my keyboard, free of any conscious effort (much as you are looking at letters and making meaning in your head right now as you read), amazes me. Touch-typing is a glorious example of cognitive automaticity, the speed of execution keeping pace with the speed of cognition.

She’s right about those new cognitive pathways. Research already suggests that far from rotting the minds of our children, using computers to write, research and communicate may actually be making our children smarter.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kirk Livingston on 01/20/2010 - 12:26 pm.

    I’ve come to realize handwriting is a technology (http://bit.ly/7tuYZs), it’s just been around so long we don’t think of it as such. Interestingly, when I really want to sort through some sticky problem, I pick up pen and paper. Interesting article!

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