Is it a lack of joined-up thinking to let handwriting go to the wall?

Children in the US public school system don’t have to learn cursive but many educators say handwriting helps children’s cognitive development in a way that typing does not

Girls practice their cursive handwriting on a blackboard in 1935. Photograph; Harold M Lambert / Getty Images

Girls practice their cursive handwriting on a blackboard in 1935. Photograph; Harold M Lambert / Getty Images

Sat, May 17, 2014, 01:00

When I was in primary school, I envied my friend Anna. When we practised our handwriting in headline copies in Miss Murphy’s senior infants class, she could produce the curls and loops and, even better, the neat, even size of the letters apparently effortlessly. While I could occasionally replicate the immaculate copperplate of the sentence printed across the top line, more often than not my efforts were marred by squiggles, variations in size in the letters and the spaces between them, and big, blowsy inkblots scattered over the page.

To today’s children, the idea of learning to write by copying worthy maxims – “A stitch in time saves nine”, “The early bird catches the worm” – using a dip pen and and an inkwell seems medieval. You might as well ask them to write with a goose quill on parchment.

The general consensus nowadays is that for handwriting, the writing is on the wall and it’s all about the technology from here. And on the face of it that seems to be true, now that toddlers can swipe before they can speak. Recently I came across a packet of pens in Tesco whose label declared they were “for handwriting” – apparently you have to specify now. In particular, there is much hand-wringing, at least in the US, about the supposed demise of “cursive” script, or what we usually call “joined-up”writing. There is no requirement now for children in the US public school system to learn cursive – only printed letters. I recently read of a creative writing teacher whose students often ask her to “decipher” notes or letters written in cursive, as though they were in cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs. And last year, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, one of the witnesses in the trial of George Zimmerman, who was accused of shooting the black teenager Trayvon Martin, caused a stir when she admitted that she could not read a letter produced in evidence because it was written in joined-up script.

In his entertaining book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why It Still Matters (Macmillan), British writer Philip Hensher argues that while technology has its uses, we should fight to keep handwriting too; that writing by hand because it is slower, encourages deeper and fuller thinking. “The shaping of thought and language by a pen, moved by a hand to register marks in ink on paper has for centuries, millennia, been key to our existence as human beings,” he writes.

And many educators agree with him, insisting that learning handwriting helps children’s cognitive development in a way that typing doesn’t.

And it does seem strange to think that we may be going back to a time when the majority of people can’t write their own signature, never mind a shopping list, a postcard or a love letter.

Then again, reports of the demise of handwriting may be greatly exaggerated. The most important piece of technology for the vast majority of students facing into the Junior and Leaving Cert papers in a couple of weeks time will be their trusty Biro. My niece, still in her 20s, writes with a fountain pen, a thing I haven’t used in decades, and sales of fountain pens in general are up. Several states in the US who had dispensed with the teaching of cursive script have re-introduced it. And, of course, there’s an iPad app that teaches children how to read it.

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