Do we learn to hand-write simply to sit exams?

cursive writingA comment that appeared on Twitter today led me to an article on AJC titled Cursive may be a fading skill, but so what? The article interested me in view of a number of places I’ve been recently where concerns are being expressed about the standards of literacy (or lack of them) among today’s learners – with the ability to write by hand being considered a lost art in an age of text messaging and the word processor, and where what used to be called “penmanship” is being shunted aside at schools across the country in favor of 21st century skills.

Referred to in the article are a number of the arguments used by those wanting to retain an emphasis on hand-writing:

It [hand-writing] doesn’t get quite the emphasis it did years ago, primarily because of all the technology skills we now teach. (ie it’s technology’s fault!)

…cursive writing is a lifelong skill, one she fears could become lost to the culture, making many historic records hard to decipher and robbing people of “a gift.”

…cursive writing is an art that helps teach them muscle control and hand-eye coordination.

In the age of computers, I just tell the children, what if we are on an island and don’t have electricity?

The article actually reports a range of perspectives, providing responses for those who are lamenting the lack of time devoted to learning hand-writing in schools:

The important thing is to have students proficient enough to focus on their ideas and the composition of their writing rather than how they form the letters.


Just like when we went from quill pen to fountain pen to ball point, now we’re going from the art of handwriting to handwriting purely as communication.

So – what’s the verdict? Should we see more time devoted to learning that cursive script as I did when I was a student, or should we accept that digital technologies enable us to record and communicate our ideas just as effectively as hand-written tombs, and, being digital, enable us to share, use and re-use what we have written in a number of contexts.

Footnote: if I do have one concern in this area it’s reference to the idea that it is text messaging and Twitter that is replacing hand-writing. There’s a subtle second issue hidden in this debate, and that is around the ability to create quality, in-depth written prose – something more than 140 characters. Word processors, wikis and blogs provide useful vehicles for this type of writing, while IM and Twitter, in my view, simply replace the “notes-to-self” stuff we write in our diaries, or the “message-at-the-speed-of-thought” often fired across board tables on a scrap of paper. It pays to be discriminating in terms of what we are promoting I guess.

12 thoughts on “Do we learn to hand-write simply to sit exams?

  1. Strangely, I’m a big supporter of handwriting. I can touch type about 10 times faster than I can write, and so writing something by hand is a way of slowing down for me. Rather than typing and editing on the fly, I have to consider each phrase more carefully.

    Handwriting is an important skill, as it forces reflection in a way that you just can’t replicate online.

    I love my technology, and I think that schools that are not embracing tech in their teaching are missing out on the immense teaching and learning benefits it offers. There is however, a place for handwriting in the classroom.

    Martin Jorgensen

    1. I don’t see that as strange at all, Martin – merely a reflection of the reality of our time – and possibly the future. The key thing here is how the debate does tend to binarise things, as if it’s either-or. where, in fact, there is room for both. I do, however believe that we should be looking seriously at allowing the use of word processors in an ‘exam’ context in the not too distant future as the requirement to submit things written by hand, in a pressured environment with sustained effort over three hours (usually) where most are more used to using digital tools is no longer tenable.

  2. I think when it comes to handwriting, as opposed to writing as an act, it could become a bit like a handcraft rather than an essential skill. I don’t think we’ll ever totally loose it – just like we still occasionally need to handwash a garment, or sew on a button. But whereas I still (less frequently now) like to play with putting words together on paper – it’s noticeable that my younger children do the same construction/ destruction/ restructure on a screen. I think that is where we have to be careful – not associating the art of writing with the use of a pen and paper. BTW as someone who has a minor learning disability relating to hand eye coordination – that’s just rubbish saying cursive writing improves it. Tidy cursive is a result of fine motor control – and way too many children used to be asked to write tidily before they had that control. My cursive is still barely legible!

  3. Things change- I remember not so long ago making a big fuss of having children learn how to spell numbers- my reasoning was that they would need to be able to write the amount on a cheque- not quite so important these days? Who would have guessed?

    In my last post I asked via Twitter whether people wrote mostly in pen or pencil. To my surprise many still wrote in pencil. But it was Barbara Reid’s response that got me thinking most- “How can we be teaching 21st century skills when we are not even using the tool of the 20th century?” I don’t think I own a pencil so why are we asking children to persist in using this tool?

  4. In my experience as a Maths teacher, I find that when some students are given the choice of using a pen or a pencil they will choose pencil when they are not confident of writing their solution correctly the first time. They like to be able to erase their first answer and replace with (hopefully) a better answer. This is something, I guess that we are used to being able to do on a computer ( I have just done this several times in this response, to correct spelling or phrasing). However, as a teacher, I find it valuable to be able to see the student’s thought processes as they get to their final solution and try to encourage them to show their draft work, rather than rub it out. Do teachers in other subjects have this issue?

  5. I would rather use a pencil over a ball point myself any day. The flow of the lead in a pencil is much more satisfying and ‘arty’ than the blob of ink out of ballpoint 🙂 Of course the new pens with flowing ink harking back to the fountain pen without the mess are way better than ball point – but still don’t have the control a pencil allows.
    I feel “Ode to the Pencil” coming on…..

  6. Kia ora e Derek!

    I must admit that I have always been astonished that handwriting has been perpetuated as a skill in school – especially a skill that seems to command such importance in the (junior) curriculum. However, I view handwriting much the same way as I view books. If we, as society, are to do away with books (in school or elsewhere) where is the technology to replace them? It is a short-sighted visionary who chooses to chuck the book without considering what will take its place. I think it’s the same with writing with a pen. What’s needed in our considerations is a deal of reality. The fact is, the pen is here, it is valuable – and for many, it is indispensable.

    Catchya later

  7. The other week I was waiting for a meeting to start and decided to make use of the few minutes I had spare to write my contriubtion to our school’s week newsletter. I was shocked to realise how hamstrung I felt trying to compose with a pen and paper – no back space, ne delete button, and what a mess as I re-crafted my contribution. I ended up having to do a ‘good copy’ of my writing so that my secretary could type it up.

    The way I write has completely changed because of digital technologies. I now type first and edit second. I no longer compose sentences in my head. I am so relieved I do not have to sit exams with pen and paper – I think I would either fail or turn in a script that was almost impossible to decipher.

    I struggle to think that we should continue to instruct students in handwriting because one day they may need to handwrite an exam. What technological support would we need to enable students to use laptops and netbooks for their exams? I write better on a computer because I can change and edit my contribution without having to worry about what the finished product may look like.

  8. I enjoyed my cursive handwriting lessons at school, but I guess they would be like torture if you hand poor hand-eye coordination. I must admit that I much prefer to draft and correct text using a word processor, but then I did learn to type when I was a kid. To be honest, I think touch typing has been a more useful skill to me at college and in all my jobs than cursive writing, from my first job as a computer programmer 25 years ago to being a teacher now. I still think it’s important for children to learn to write clearly, neatly and at speed, and cursive seems to be the best way to do that. I prefer the UK style of cursive (or joined-up writing) as it is closer to print than the US styles and is therefore easier to learn and I would imagine quicker to write as we don’t have flouncy curly twiddly bits to content with!

  9. The digital divide cuts both ways as the digitally able and enabled are asked to be measured in analogue ways. This maybe suitable for artistic expression etc but when the information is the same we create a barrier to achievement with one acceptable format (a one right answer). My way or the high way. We must make choices at some stage in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Handwriting I hope will fade as requirement for communication. Of course these are pipe dreams but it would be nice to take something off the ever growing mountain of things student need to be able to do ;-p

  10. Hand-writing is itself a fine physical motor skill – hence, if it isn’t practiced, then the skill is lost. That’s why there is such a difference between beginner’s huge and wobbly printing, vs old-style copperplate wonder scripts. I know for a fact that the qualilty of the thought behind my writing has vastly diminished since I have had the use of a keypad. I am no longer answerable to somebody who will expect to be able to read what I have written – it’s all typed font, where I can achieve absolute uniformity simply by banging away, and then cutting, copying and pasting. It tends to be all GO GO GO and not so much FLOW FLOW FLOW. The big ideas which I used to be able to create and move around through the act of creative writing are just not able to come into being with the process of written typing. Sure, I can create some nice sentences, but honestly, decent big ideas haven’t had a chance to breathe yet through all the clippy cloppy type-written efficiency…….. then again, maybe what I have is a busy-ness vs time management problem….

Leave a Reply