Penmanship, or cursive handwriting, has been part of our lives forever, but the advances of technology, and the pressure on schools to focus on the skills needed in the 21st century, are pushing the teaching of cursive to the corner.
Text messaging, email, and word processing have replaced handwriting outside the classroom, said Cheryl Jeffers, a professor at Marshall University’s College of Education, and she worries they’ll replace it entirely before long. “I’m not sure students have a sense of any reason why they should vest their time and effort in writing a message out manually when it can be sent electronically in seconds.”
In Germany children learn to write using fountain pens, and always have a stack of paper (recycled) on their desks to take notes. A private school in Scotland is insisting pupils use fountain pens, in an attempt to save the dying art of handwriting. Mary Erskine and Stewart’s Melville junior school in Edinburgh believes cursive is on the brink of extinction, thanks to text messaging and computers. “Learning to write in fountain pen not only results in beautiful presentation but also has the not-insignificant bonus of developing children’s self-esteem.” says Bryan Lewis, the school principal.
But now studies suggest there is a big reason to maintain and learn this skill, called by some people “a gift.” Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning; recently at Indiana University, using an MRI machine, researchers discovered that children’s neural activity was far more enhanced when they practiced writing by hand, after receiving different letter-learning instruction, compared to others who had simply looked at letters.
It’s not just children who benefit, says Gwendolyn Bounds, a writer about home improvement and housing for The Wall Street Journal, “Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.”
Ironically, the arrival of the iPad and other tablet-like devices, plus touchscreen smartphones, are providing a means to use handwriting and technology together. New educational games for those devices could be used to teach cursive to children as a game.
In an age when people are not writing personal notes on paper, where email, eCards, texting, and Facebook messages have replaced the art of written communication, I treasure the handwritten cards and letters I received over the years.
At Mountaineer Montessori in Charleston, teacher Sharon Spencer tells children in her class: “In the age of computers, what if we are on a desert island and don’t have electricity? One of the ways we communicate is through writing.”