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Learning handwriting is more about training the brain than cursive script

Schools in Finland, it has been reported, are phasing out the teaching of handwriting skills, a claim that has led to arguments along the lines of whether technology has made handwriting obsolete and what the consequences of this might be. Some may feel teaching handwriting is a poor use of precious educational time these days – but the death of handwriting may have been greatly exaggerated.

That there are many more ways to communicate today than through the (hand)written word alone does raise questions about how we should teach writing to children. But the answers should surely focus more on how we can best use technology to improve childrens’ education, rather than concluding that responsibility should be devolved to a machine. In this regard, the debate about the use of technology to replace handwriting appears to capture the issues surrounding the benefits and dangers of technological advance.

It’s possible to argue that the invention of the internal combustion engine and the electric motor means humans no longer need to be physically active. This is certainly true in one sense – it is possible for the relatively affluent to live largely sedentary lifestyles in many societies. But as is suggested by the growing problem of obesity, physical activity may have benefits to individuals and to society that go beyond simply getting from A to B.

Similarly, there are many arguments that support the importance of teaching handwriting: here are three reasons why teaching writing skills is absolutely critical.

Wiring the brain

First, there are clear environmental advantages to using a pen and a piece of paper rather than relying on electronic gadgetry – there is great virtue in the simplicity afforded by a pencil and piece of paper. We would surely be doing a disservice to a generation if we failed to teach them the basics of textual communication and forced them to become reliant on electronics and the availability of printers.

Second, handwriting underpins many other skills. It requires children to learn to control the forces they apply to objects held in their hands. It requires the use of visual feedback to correct errors and the ability to make predictions about the consequences of the commands the brain sends to the hand. These are fundamental control processes required in many other situations – think of using cutlery, tying shoelaces and playing ball sports for example.

Of course, these control processes are also required for controlling a computer mouse or the stylus provided with a touchscreen laptop. Handwriting provides an excellent opportunity to teach children the fundamentals of manual dexterity. A failure to teach school children these abilities would represent a neglect of the core building blocks that support a multitude of skills.

Finally, handwriting is intrinsically linked to other important skills such as reading. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society has shown that a child’s ability to remember and then draw a visually presented shape is predictive of how well they will score on national writing tests. Interestingly, the ability to reproduce the memorised shape was also predictive of scores in reading tests. So this suggests, as have other studies, that there is a link between writing and reading.

It’s a link that may appear surprising at first, as reading and writing appear to constitute two rather different skills. But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests a close relationship between developing motor skills and developing cognitive skills. For example, it’s often easier to type in a PIN than remember and verbally report the numbers. This shows how motor actions reinforce memory for certain forms of information. Indeed, there’s also strong evidence to suggest that processes related to writing numbers also support mathematical development (mathematicians are always found writing formulas with pencils or chalk).

The best (teaching) tools for the job

So this strong rationale for teaching handwriting skills makes it seem all the more incredible that Finland is to phase it out. But in fact, a closer inspection reveals a slightly more nuanced picture than the headlines might imply: children are still taught to write, but with less emphasis on cursive, or joined-up, handwriting skills and with more time given to teaching children the complementary skill of typing.

This is a very different proposition to not teaching the basics of handwriting. Indeed, the idea that education should focus more on the substance of creative ideas and understanding than the stylistic production of beautiful cursive scripts is not new. Any educationalist worth their salt would surely welcome any technological advance that helps children to learn.

But it’s worth noting that most universities assess the understanding of their undergraduates by locking them in cold gymnasiums and seeing how quickly they can write down information. So a failure to teach children this skill may place them at a serious disadvantage without changes to these traditions. Perhaps a fundamental overhaul of the whole educational system is required if we are to really benefit from the technological advances – but this will require serious thought, rather than simplistic notions of abandoning core elements of teaching practice.

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