Beth Ann Rosica: Keyboard kids and the death of handwriting

Call me old fashioned, I still appreciate a handwritten card of any kind, but particularly a thank you note. Sadly, an actual cursive note appears to be a dying breed.

Over the years, cursive handwriting instruction has been phased out of most public schools. A large number of students today not only cannot write cursive, they can’t read it either. Many will never read the original Declaration of Independence for that reason.

Children are not learning how to sign their full name, and most kids don’t think it’s a big deal because they use their phone or tablet for just about everything.

School is no exception. Since the massive school closures in 2020, teaching and instruction has migrated to an online platform. In most school districts across the country, every student is issued a technological device of some sort. Even in elementary schools, children have an iPad or Chromebook to complete much of their work.

Proponents of this model where students are sitting in an actual classroom but completing work on a device believe that it helps prepare them for the real world. Those of us who complain are labeled as out-of-touch or just plain old.

However, there is more to the concern about an overreliance on technology in the classroom. Research shows that the ability to manually write letters and words is causally related to reading and comprehension. A study actually demonstrates that the process of printing letters impacts an area of the brain that is related to reading competence.

“Imaging results showed that children who had printed the letters had greater activation in the left fusiform gyrus (an area of the brain) during letter perception than children who had learned the letters without printing practice.” (emphasis added)

A later study confirmed the results that brain activity is different for those children who learn to write letters manually versus those who learn to write by tracing or using a keyboard.

There is “evidence of direct neural links between handwriting quality, a skill that has been strongly associated with higher level writing skills and reading, and neural processing underlying phonological processing, which is thought to be causally related to reading acquisition”

These studies date back to 2012 and 2014, and yet schools are relying on technology more and more to replace handwriting instruction. There are likely a myriad of reasons, but similar to the science of reading, it seems irresponsible of schools to ignore the evidence.

Due to abysmal reading scores across the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania has proposed legislation to require school districts to use evidence based reading instruction. In 2023, only slightly higher than 50 percent of all elementary public school students were proficient in reading.

Legislators and schools may want to consider combining evidence based reading instruction with handwriting instruction. 

One such program, Size Matters, was created by a local school-based occupational therapist, Dr. Beverly Moskowitz, as a result of “drowning in handwriting referrals.” Her instruction started with special education students and when she saw rapid improvement in their handwriting skills, she knew she was on to something.

Her instruction focused on the size of the letter, rather than on the formation of each individual letter.

“I started experimenting with variables that seemed to be more impactful, like focusing on letter size versus letter form. What I observed was that the kids caught on really quickly. Correcting errors in letter size made an immediate and visible difference in the appearance of their written pages. Since there were only three sizes, versus 62 forms (e.g. uppercase, lowercase letters and numbers), it was super easy and super fast to teach. More so, when the children focused on letter size, form took care of itself.”

Her experimentation continued with regular education students in first grade classrooms and the results were even better.

“The first grade teacher flagged me down later that day to tell me that once I left the room, everybody’s printing changed immediately. Crazier still was that later that week, she caught up with me again. One parent called her to admit, she scolded her daughter for being so irresponsible, bringing home somebody else’s assignment book. She did not recognize her own daughter’s printing.”

That’s when Dr. Moskowitz decided to scale up Size Matters, and subsequent research studies have shown that her program works.

“Ultimately, I began to formalize, conceptualize, and test my observations. In what turned out to be the largest study ever done on handwriting… I was proven right. Letter Size is the key. That’s why we say that when it comes to neat printing, size matters!”

A study conducted by Temple University found that “the results… support the use of a curricular-embedded handwriting program.”

A program that is easy for regular classroom teachers to implement may address any roadblocks to teaching manual handwriting in the classroom. 

Given the research on the impact of handwriting on reading, it seems incumbent on schools to get back to the basics and pull out the pencils and paper to start writing using an evidence-based model, especially given the current reading scores across the state.

And maybe if teachers see their students succeed with handwriting, we can bring back the elusive cursive writing so that kids learn to sign their name, write a thank you note, or read our country’s founding documents in their original text — although that might be too much to hope for.

Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at barosica@broadandliberty.com.

7 thoughts on “Beth Ann Rosica: Keyboard kids and the death of handwriting”

  1. Oh no, children who do not learn cursive can’t read the Declaration of Independence in its original form. Guess what, they still have multiple options to read it, which is much more important. Requiring children to learn cursive is like requiring them to learn how to use a manual typewriter instead of a computer, its outdated. If you must insist on this then lets make sure they learn cursive just like the Declaration of Independence was written with a quill pen and an ink pot. Because those new fangled ball point pens make it easier.

    1. I love how much you trust authority, Judah. Thankfully, the majority of us know better. Translations are not always exact and people can use translations as a way to slightly change the meaning of things over time. The Bible is a perfect example.
      Without the ability for our citizens to read things in their original format, we’d have to trust the same authorities who tried to convince us that one way aisles and homemade cloth masks would protect us from a virus.

      1. Unlike the Bible which has been open to interpretation over the last 2000 years. The U.S. Constitution is a legally binding document and can be rewritten to suit someone’s needs. As for finding a copy of the Constituion that is not written in cursive, here you go; -https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript – https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

        “Note: The following text is a transcription of the Constitution as it was inscribed by Jacob Shallus on parchment (the document on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum.) The spelling and punctuation reflect the original.”

      2. Just in case you want to quibble over a typo here is the typo free version

        Unlike the Bible which has been open to interpretation over the last 2000 years. The U.S. Constitution is a legally binding document and can NOT be rewritten to suit someone’s needs. As for finding a copy of the Constitution that is not written in cursive, here you go; -https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript – https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

        “Note: The following text is a transcription of the Constitution as it was inscribed by Jacob Shallus on parchment (the document on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum.) The spelling and punctuation reflect the original.”

  2. I guess that part of the article that deals with printing and cursive writing contributing to reading and comprehension skills is of no consequence. Because the use of the computer is new and “forward thinking” doesn’t make the old useless, nor should it replace the old. Seems to me a bit retrograde to have someone only able to sign legal documents with an “X” or by surrogate signing on their behalf. Remember the adage: “just because the cat had her kittens in the oven, doesn’t make them biscuits.”

    1. The American public has had easy access to computers since 1990, so after 40 years computers are not new and forward thinking. I have yet to meet anyone who needs to sign a document with an “X” or a surrogate. Requiring cursive is as out dated as land lines and rotary phones, no one uses them because there are better options.

  3. I retired from public school teaching in 2014. I returned to the classroom as a long-term substitute twice–in 2018 and 2020–when colleagues became seriously ill.

    It was a bit of a culture shock. Especially by 2020, hard copies were becoming scarce. Pencils, paper, and instructional handouts stored in notebooks rarely appeared. Directions and learning materials were posted online; and student work was produced, submitted, and even graded online.

    I was especially concerned during the first semester of 2020, when I was teaching college-level music theory to high school students. I soon found myself creating and distributing hard copies of instructional handouts to be stored in notebooks and worksheets on which students could practice writing chord progressions.

    Certain musical skills are best learned by working them out on staff paper. I couldn’t see high school students trying to do harmonic analysis of Bach chorales on laptops. I couldn’t even see myself attempting that feat.

    I learned from my two stints as a substitute teacher that teaching and learning had changed dramatically in just the few years since I had turned in my whiteboard markers.

    I still volunteer a lot in the public school in which I taught. Since the pandemic, which required teachers to put their entire curricula online for remote learning, there seems to be even less direct “sage-on-the-stage” instruction. Teachers can sit at their desks as students independently work their ways through lessons originally designed to be completed at home. No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers…

    At this point, I have become skeptical about the efficacy of paperless pedagogy.

    When I was in college in the 70s, we were told we would retain more information while studying if we wrote down notes from our textbooks rather than simply highlighted passages. We learned that Johann Sebastian Bach routinely hand-copied the scores of other composers to learn about their compositional techniques and styles. Within the past year, I heard a religious broadcaster recommend writing down passages of scripture to aid in Bible study.

    There once seemed to be a consensus that there is intrinsic educational value in the physical act of writing things down. The digital age and the pandemic apparently caused us to forget that time-honored principle.

    Writing things down forces us to work more slowly, and it gives us chances to consider factors we might overlook when we are pounding away at computer keyboards. I do a lot of writing on social media. When I scroll through old posts, I often discover errors–simple, stupid ones–I doubt I would have made if I had been handwriting rather than typing.

    I am glad there are studies that seem to back up the queasy feeling I get in the pit of my gut when I see things being done in school that I suspect might not be best for students.

    The question, or course, is whether teachers will be willing or even able to take a step backward in pedagogical time and recover one of the lost tools of learning–writing things down.

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