It seems the day of the good old-fashioned pen or pencil and paper is going to the wayside as schools debate eliminating cursive writing from curriculums, and computers take over as the preferred means of communication in the workplace, the classroom and even at home.
There is still room for improvement though when it comes to the art of good handwriting in the 21st century, according to experts and industry specialists.
“Right now the estimate in the United States is that about one minute a day in preschool is spent on handwriting, so that can be increased,” says Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington. “You don’t want children getting frustrated, but that amount of focus could probably be increased without any detrimental effects.”
According to research presented at the 2012 “Handwriting in the 21st Century?” educational summit, handwriting supports literacy skills, including reading, writing and oral language.
“The brain begins to show changes which need to occur in order to learn to read,” says Karin James, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. “That doesn’t happen with tracing or typing. There’s something about the free production of the letters that makes that change.”
Students who do not have consistent exposure to handwriting can experience difficulty retrieving letters from memory, reproducing letters on paper, and can have trouble with spelling and reading comprehension, according to research.
Handwriting is not the end-all-be-all, though. Cursive writing and keyboarding skills can be just as important in a writer’s bag of tools.
“It’s very clear that handwriting is a necessary ingredient for learning language, but it’s not the only component,” Berninger says. “The good writer, more often than not, uses a combination of manuscript writing and cursive.”
In the 21st century, the best approach is to be a hybrid writer. That is, being able to write manuscript and cursive in addition to keyboarding, according to Berninger.
Helping kids grow into hybrid writers means they need to be taught printing in first and second grades; cursive in grades three and four; and they need to be introduced to touch typing in grades four and five.
Learning to write in cursive or to touch type using both hands can be beneficial when trying to convey a lot of ideas quickly.
“We’re all human beings, but we’re also individuals, so I think we need to teach multiple modes of writing and let the individual choose which mode or technology interface works best for them,” Berninger says.
Make Practice Fun
So, how do you convince the kids to put down the keyboard and pick up the pencil for a little handwriting time? Make practicing handwriting a fun activity, James says. And don’t place such a huge emphasis on perfection.
“There’s nothing saying they should have to learn their ABCs before they enter preschool,” she says.
“If parents are concerned about it, then certainly giving them lots of paper and crayons or whatever they want can’t hurt, as long as they’re not forced to do it.”
Learning to write freehand is preferred over letting kids type or trace letters, as studies have shown that kids will remember the letters better if they print them freehand.
You can encourage kids to practice handwriting at home by having them journal after story time or write letters to penpals and thank-you letters to friends and family.
You can also have them write stories or songs, or do some crossword puzzles or Mad Libs for a bit of a challenge.
Writing riddles, jokes or even their own personal newspaper, joining writing clubs after school can get kids excited about learning, Berninger says.