American Elephants

Handwriting, Printing, Cursive or Keyboard? by The Elephant's Child


The late Richard Mitchell, the ‘underground grammarian’ wrote that “the business of writing is to stay put on the page, so you can look at it later and see where you have been stupid.”

I learned in college that handwritten notes help you to learn. The act of writing helps to fix things in your mind. Now comes a study from researchers at Princeton and UCLA that shows that taking notes on the computer is detrimental to learning. Handwritten notes are dramatically more effective at helping students retain information. Laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even when the computer is used for its intended function of easier notetaking.

The majority of students would tell you just the opposite. Yet the study shows that students who take direct notes retain significantly less information. In recent years, the public schools have decided that children will do all their writing on a computer and they need only learn keyboarding. Cursive is out. Children not only don’t learn to write, they don’t learn to read handwriting.

Most adults who have learned cursive as children abandon it as adults for a mixture. The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters, making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. I switched to a mixture in sixth grade—I remember distinctly because I got in trouble for it with a teacher who was a Palmer-method purist. I was lucky to have a father and an aunt with impossible handwriting, which I mastered, and I have seldom been stymied by anyone’s handwriting.

The benefits of handwriting, learning cursive, is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. The physical act of writing leads to increased comprehension and participation. The College Board found a few  years ago that students who wrote the essay portion of the SAT in cursive scored slightly higher than those who printed, which experts believe is because the speed and efficiency of writing allows students to focus on the content of their essays.

If you are an opponent of Common Core, cursive is no longer included in the Common Core State Standards, which I believe to be an important mistake.

2 Comments so far
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I tend to send notes to people that are written on a keyboard because my hand writing is atrocious, and I wouldn’t inflict that on someone else. I could claim my handwriting is inherited – my grandfather would write home to Nana when he was overseas with the Navy, and she would wind up in tears because she couldn’t read what he had written (she has beautiful hand writing, by the way). When Papa retired from the Navy and became a schoolteacher, Nana would go to the school in the afternoon and write the next day’s lesson on the board for him. He has long since turned over writing checks because they actually had several returned because they couldn’t tell what amount he’d written.

But I always write out my notes for everything that I write professionally, not only because it helps me remember what I need to, but it helps me clarify what I want to say in a way that I can’t do on a keyboard. I don’t know if it’s that I have to concentrate on what punctuation key is where or what; all I know is that my work is better if I write it out first.

My goddaughter tried using the “keyboard is the way of the future” argument, with her mother, but her mother insisted that she learn to write the traditional way. She and I both believe it helped her in school (she’s on track to be a valedictorian this year), but believe it or not, she actually has taken up calligraphy as a hobby. Now she’s looking for people to get married so she can write their wedding announcements.


Comment by Lon Mead

my father had cramped, forward-slanting handwriting, very hard to read, but I always could. The pad on his desk kept his handwriting from carving up the desk because he really bore down hard, but when he wrote something without the pad there would be a complete signature carved into the surface. My aunt’s was a backhand and way too loopy. A lot of us have learned the value of handwritten notes on our own, but the schools (at least here) have not and kids don’t even learn handwriting at all.

If your goddaughter is good at calligraphy, there is a huge market in advertising and graphic design. We had one of the stars of calligraphy here locally, and I used him once or twice. (I was a graphic designer in my former life). Go to Google images, enter “Graphic Design calligraphy” — lots of good examples. Any good university bookstore should have some good graphic design calligraphy books among the art books. Pays a lot better than wedding announcements, though the White House has a full time calligrapher. I don’t think I’d recommend that job.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

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