Handwriting, a Foundation for Communication and Thought

During a year of homeschooling, my children practiced penmanship. The positive impact on everything from legibility to understanding and reinforcement was impressive. A year back in public school and my son’s handwriting has regressed.  And he no longer writes in cursive.

Look at our country’s founding documents and ask whether today’s students are capable of such exquisite handwriting and thought.  Of course they are. Those patriots also filled responsible and respectable jobs in their teens when today’s teens can’t sign their name ( Cursive is about more than penmanship, N. Borges). Not only do they not know how to write in cursive, they struggle to read cursive.

So what’s different?

Declaration of Independence with 56 Signatures

Schools no longer teach penmanship. Cursive is optional and if it is required, it is offered only for a year.  Yet experts realize there are real benefits to handwriting as related in this recent New York Times article.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

 “And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”   (What’s lost as handwriting fades?).

My son’s handwriting is atrocious and I needn’t look far for a reason because my handwriting was horrible. Even today, so much of his school work through middle school and on exams remains handwritten. So my son practiced cursive for home school several times a week using a $13 program called Presidential Penmanship (Link).  He was 11 years old.  You can see his progress below

Lesson 1,  pretty rough

Lesson 12 is better.
Handwriting improves with practice and they remember the content.

I began dictating stories which they had to listen to and write correctly. This was effective and powerful;  the children could recall the story from memory and learned to spell, punctuate, and copy good writing. Memorization and recitation are also excellent, though I did not require it as often.

As the quality of handwriting improves, other things do as well.  Children remember what they write and other subjects improve.  In our case, the presidential quotes were inspiring and shed light on our history.

Though I value handwriting, I’m not a Luddite who spurns technology.  The children also used an affordable typing program, Mavis Beacon (Product link), which improved their keyboard skills by increasing speed and accuracy without looking at the keyboard.

This summer, my son must practice penmanship at home because the quality of his handwriting is unfortunate for everyone, his teachers and him.  Many friends commiserate about their sons’ handwriting and I don’t know how the teachers decipher what they write.

My teenage daughter said a boy in her honors class has to type because he can’t hand write due to a disability.  This comes as no surprise.

If reading is the foundation for learning, hand writing is the foundation for communication and thought; and this is true especially in the formative years.

I read Dr. Ben Carson’s speech this weekend which he gave at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast.  He talked about education and how Alexis de Tocqueville visited our fledgling country in 1831 to understand its early success.  He was impressed with our three branches of government, but was “blown away” by our educational system.

You see, anybody who had finished the second grade was completely literate. He [de Tocqueville] could find a mountain man on the outskirts of society who could read the newspaper and could have a political discussion . . . could tell him how the government worked.  (Link to book)

In his book on education, Carson discusses “a sixth-grade exit exam from the 1800s – a test you had to pass to get your sixth grade certificate. I doubt most college graduates today could pass that test.”

When I look at the signatures on the Declaration of Independence, I am forced to reconsider the role handwriting plays in education.  And I wonder why many high school graduates today do not have the basic understanding of a second grader or sixth grader in the early 1800s.

 

 

Jun 9, 2014

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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