The Inspired Writer Blog

Is the Pencil Becoming Obsolete?

Oct 17

Written by: Suzanne Klein
10/17/2011 2:24 PM 

Though K-5 students are required by the Common Core to practice writing with digital tools, writing by hand seems to stimulate brain development far more than keyboarding. Though K-5 students are required by the Common Core to practice writing with digital tools, writing by hand does far more to stimulate brain development.
Helping children become stronger writers while making sense of the Writing Common Cores can be challenging. WriteSteps offers techniques that bring teachers and students success; this is what we want to discuss in our newly launched blog.

For our first post, however, we want to join a different conversation: the question of whether handwriting instruction in elementary classrooms should go by the wayside. This has been hotly debated ever since “Handwriting is History” first appeared online. Throw in the fact that the ELA Common Cores are silent on the topic of handwriting (while saying plenty about essential writing skills), and the decision by some districts to make handwriting instruction optional after second grade -- what are teachers to do?

The Common Cores set the bar high for writing skills -- composition, that is. We're glad. This is the right priority. Still, even though WriteSteps is not a handwriting program, we believe handwriting still matters.  Why? 

Handwriting Helps Kids Learn

There's an intimate connection between body and mind, and this body-mind connection activates learning. Research shows a strong relationship between brain activity and fine motor skills, and this is where handwriting enters the picture. An Indiana University study last year revealed that the brain activity in children who are taught to form letters by hand is significantly more adult-like than that of children who do not receive this instruction.  The brains of the children who were taught handwriting actually showed "a huge spike" in activity in the neural network associated with reading.

This kind of brain stimulation does not occur during keyboarding. New research from the University of Washington found a reason why. It’s because handwriting involves creating a sequence of marks to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter with one stroke. According to the study: “Pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory.”

Handwriting is Still Practical

There’s a lot more evidence that working with the hands develops higher thinking skills. Neurologist Frank Wilson thoroughly explored this topic in his Pulitzer-nominated book, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.

Let's look at some purely practical reasons, though. Even in the digital age, students still need to be able to read handwritten information. Whether they’ll want to decipher bits of hand-scrawled family history or grow up to become researchers who interpret primary-source records of the past, today’s children live in a world that still stores vast amounts of cultural and personal history in handwritten documents.

There’s another reason, too: at least for now, the SAT includes a handwritten writing test, and test-prep gurus claim that students with neat handwriting receive higher scores! A scoring bias towards better handwriting is also found in other measures of academic performance, and our coaching staff sees that bias frequently in classrooms, even though our teachers use scoring rubrics based on the 6 Traits.

The Common Core requires K-5 students to publish their writing using digital tools, but WriteSteps also gives them plenty of practice writing by hand.
WriteSteps students proudly type their finished pieces using digital tools, but write by hand extensively during the planning and drafting phases.  
Handwriting and Keyboarding
So what’s the role of handwriting in WriteSteps? We meet the Common Core requirement that K-5 students to "publish" their writing using digital technology, while still ensuring that students write by hand – a lot. WriteSteps students learn to organize their ideas by hand writing them on graphic organizers. They to evaluate, edit, and revise their work using the 6-Traits rubrics, hand writing their revisions with colored pens. They write daily in their writer’s notebooks, again, usually by hand, which many creative writing teachers believe enhances access to subconscious creative forces.

WriteSteps teachers also reinforce penmanship as needed, in the context of expressing written ideas. What does this look like?  When a child writes a letter we can’t read, we ask the child to practice it 7-10 times in the left margin. For younger ones, we may initially use a highlighter to provide the student a pattern to trace over.

At the end of this process, of course, students use keyboards to publish their work as outlined in the Common Core. They also conduct online research, and have options to make use of other digital tools as well.  With so much digital information at their fingertips, will today’s children see the day when pencils are, in fact obsolete? Maybe. But that time hasn’t arrived yet.

Bottom line:  Dismissing handwriting as old-fashioned doesn't make sense in spite of our increasing use of digital technology. Until we find other ways to replicate the brain stimulation that occurs when children put pencil to paper, we believe schools should continue to teach this surprisingly important skill.

What’s your opinion on teaching handwriting?  Should it still be taught?  If so, to what extent?  How has your school responded to the handwriting debate?

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