Handwriting Key to Learning

For most people, the written thank-you is your best bet for an expression of warm, heartfelt thanks. The last thing you want is for someone to be disappointed when her hand-knit scarf is acknowledged with a loud, animated e-card." So says the Emily Post Institute, founded in 1946 and still an authority on principles of politeness in today's digital age. And while, in the era of Gawker and YouTube, its earnest advice may seem old-fashioned and out of touch, it does raise the question: does handwriting have a practical use today, or is it just a relic of a bygone era when children listened to their elders? Certainly, notes written by hand have the retro appeal of, say, a gift of homemade apple butter, but apart from the odd scribble of gratitude or condolence, do we really need it?

Many educators say yes, for reasons having nothing to do with thank-you notes. Handwriting is important because research shows that when children are taught how to do it, they are also being taught how to learn and how to express themselves. A new study to be released this month by Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham finds that a majority of primary-school teachers believe that students with fluent handwriting produced written assignments that were superior in quantity and quality and resulted in higher grades—aside from being easier to read. The College Board recognized this in 2005 when it added a handwritten essay to the SAT—an effort to reverse the de-emphasis on handwriting and composition that may be adversely affecting children's learning all the way through high school and beyond.

How much instruction do kids need in cursive writing? In the 1960s and 1970s, the Zaner-Bloser Co., which has been publishing penmanship curriculum since 1904, recommended 45 minutes a day. By the 1980s, it was suggesting just 15 minutes. Today the average is more like 10 minutes, according to Handwriting Without Tears, whose penmanship curriculum is used by 5,000 school districts around the country. "We haven't added more hours to the school day or the school year, yet we've added more content, and something had to give," says Dennis Williams, national product manager for handwriting at Zaner-Bloser. In Zaner-Bloser's 2005 national survey, a majority of primary-school teachers said they spent an hour or less on handwriting a week. And Graham's study found that only 12 percent of teachers had actually taken a course in how to teach it. And, he says, educators are noticing a significant decline in the quality of students' handwriting and an increase in the frequency of problems such as letter reversals. We've forgotten one of the first rules of pedagogy: mind your p's and q's.

All this matters, educators say, because evidence is growing that handwriting fluency is a fundamental building block of learning. Emily Knapton, director of program development at Handwriting Without Tears, believes that "when kids struggle with handwriting, it filters into all their academics. Spelling becomes a problem; math becomes a problem because they reverse their numbers. All of these subjects would be much easier for these kids to learn if handwriting was an automatic process." That concern, in part, prompted the addition of a written essay to the SAT, which is graded for content, though not legibility. "If you put something like a writing test on the SAT, children's skill level will begin to be addressed," says Ed Hardin, a senior content specialist at the College Board. The trickle-down effect to middle schools should eventually reach third grade, where the trouble so often begins.

No one is predicting, or even recommending, a return to the days when children obsessively practiced the curlicues on their Palmer Method capitals. Beauty seems to be less important than fluidity and speed. Graham's work, and others', has shown that from kindergarten through fourth grade, kids think and write at the same time. (Only later is mental composition divorced from the physical process of handwriting.) If they have to struggle to remember how to make their letters, their ability to express themselves will suffer. The motions have to be automatic, both for expressive writing and for another skill that students will need later in life, note-taking. "Measures of speed among elementary-school students are good predictors of the quality and quantity of their writing in middle school," says Stephen Peverly, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "I don't care about legibility."

Predictions of handwriting's demise didn't begin with the computer; they date back to the introduction of the Remington typewriter in 1873. But for at least a generation, penmanship has seemed a quaint and, well … schoolmarmish subject to be emphasizing. Now, backed by new research, educators are trying to wedge it back into the curriculum. After all, no one has suggested that the invention of the calculator means we don't have to teach kids how to add, and spelling is still a prized skill in the era of spell check. If we stop teaching penmanship, it will not only hasten the dreaded day when brides acknowledge wedding gifts by e-mail; the bigger danger is, they'll be composed even more poorly than they already are.