Is Handwriting Dead?

A page from a kid's primer of cursive writing- with the letters a to z and the numbers 1 to 10.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is Handwriting Dead? My fifth grader is doing OK with remote school and keeps up to date with classwork. He spends most of the day on the computer and then plays video games in the evening. My worry is that there is no opportunity to turn in assignments written by hand. So, his handwriting (penmanship) is suffering. When I went to elementary school the nuns made me stay after class and corrected my hand-writing until it looked satisfactory (to them). My son thinks this is funny, but I do not think his bad hand writing is funny at all. Jemma, Los Angeles

Dear Jemma, There are some skills that are enhanced by computer learning but penmanship is not one of them. Sitting at a computer all day make us faster on the keyboard, but hand writing skills atrophy. An older story in The Washington Post, reports that until the 1970s penmanship was taught as a separate subject and up till sixth grade children spent at least two hours a week on it. Today, when schools teach hand writing it is frequently for 10 minutes or less a day, and formal instruction ends after third grade. It’s a conundrum: many kids never learn cursive writing and printing can be too slow for them to get their thoughts on paper.

There may be ways that you can intervene as a parent but it will take two of you to carry this off. What I mean is that you, as a parent, will need to pickup a pencil and paper, sometimes in lieu of your phone, and show how enjoyable and useful it is to write by hand. You son is going to model the media behavior he sees at home, from reading books and newspapers, to spending free time on the phone or computer. 

Get Fun!

First, I would read up on the pros and cons of different handwriting techniques: print,  cursive or a speed-combo called the Barchowsky method. Go with what your son feels comfortable with. Then, visit a stationery store together and pick out the pen and pencils that feel special to your son. The right pen, with a comfortable grip, makes a difference in how handwriting looks on the page.  And, kids seem to enjoy the newest pens that have erasable ink. 

The second step is to set a daily routine with a fun time to write. Mom can be  the “tooth fairy” and leave a small gift (a candy bar, a poem, a new pen).   Then, your son has to keep a hand-written journal for the “tooth fairy.” He can write about the gifting, how he feels about that day’s cache. If this seems contrived, then create an “appreciation journal”- talk through what you are both grateful for each day, and have him write a few sentences about it in a lined notebook. 

Get Literate Too!

There is a parallel activity if you want to add a lesson on media literacy. Configure his phone so that there is always paper and pencil nearby- perhaps put the smartphone, the notebook and a pen in a see-through carry case. After using the phone and putting it back in the case, he writes a few sentences in the notebook about the browsing habit: what he saw or looked at, and how it made him feel (e.g. happy, sad, indifferent).  You can customize the page to be a timesheet with entries. 

The idea is that he works on his hand-writing as he also develops a mindful, attentive awareness towards browsing the Internet. I would not stress over the particular words or sentences he writes, since your focus is on just getting him to use the pen more and the keyboard less.

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