“Sign here please.”
Anyone who has ever accepted a UPS delivery, signed a permission slip for a school field trip, or filled out a legal document has likely heard this phrase. Although it takes only a few seconds to sign a document, our handwritten signature means that we have read the document and accept responsibility for the agreement.
But handwritten signatures might soon become a relic of the past. Fewer students are learning cursive writing in school, as evidenced by the fact that it is optional in Ontario, British Columbia, and Newfoundland. Even though the other provinces still nominally include cursive writing in the curriculum, not all teachers and schools give it the same level of emphasis.
Without proper instruction, students aren’t likely to learn cursive writing when they are surrounded by computer screens. With increasingly more schools purchasing laptops and iPads for their students—even for those in the earliest grade levels—students spend far more time typing on a keyboard than holding a pen or pencil.
Many people don’t see a problem with this educational shift. Some educators even suggest that there isn’t much need for cursive writing anymore. After all, computers are ubiquitous. Even handwritten signatures are being replaced by electronic signatures and PIN codes.
If the only reason for learning cursive writing is the need to sign legal documents, perhaps we should phase it out. But handwriting is useful for more than just signing documents. A new study published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology showed that handwriting engages the brain in many more ways than typing on a keyboard. During the study, researchers used electrodes to compare the brain activity of children who were writing by hand with those who were typing. They found that writing produced far more brain activity.
These results are consistent with the findings of other studies. For example, Dr. Hetty Roessingh is a professor at the University of Calgary who is an expert in language and literacy. In her research, she found that printing by hand creates memory traces in the brain that assist children with the recognition of letter shapes and plays an important role in their reading development. Typing on a keyboard does not have nearly the same impact.
Contrary to what progressive educators claim, repetition is not a bad thing in learning new skills. Only by committing foundational skills to long-term memory can students move on to more advanced learning. Students who do not receive sufficient practice in printing invariably do not develop excellent reading and writing skills.
Thus, it is essential for students to practice printing and cursive writing in the earliest grades. According to Roessingh, connecting letters together in a script makes it possible for students to write more quickly and helps them move information from their short-term memories into their long-term memories. Thus, students who handwrite fluently can engage with more challenging text because more of the information will be transferred to their long-term memories.
Interestingly, handwriting remains useful long after students have finished elementary school. In 2014, Dr. Pam Mueller and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer published research in the academic journal Psychological Science showing that university students who took notes by hand retained considerably more information than students who used laptops.
These researchers attributed this discrepancy to the fact that students who wrote notes by hand usually summarized the main ideas in their own words and because the information was processed by their brains. This process helped them retain key concepts in their long-term memories.
In contrast, laptops made it too easy for students to transcribe lectures word-for-word without processing the material in the brain, and this left students with a shallower level of understanding. In other words, the information never came into their long-term memories. Clearly, it makes sense for students to use the method that helps them retain as much information as possible.
However, this is only possible if students know how to write by hand. Printing is too slow for efficient notetaking while typing makes it too easy to record notes without processing the information. Listening and typing implies that the information comes in through the ears and out through the fingers without engaging the students’ brains. If students do not learn how to handwrite in school, they are unlikely to acquire this skill when they become adults.
For these reasons, both elementary and secondary students need to spend less time on computers—not more. They need to learn how to painstakingly print first, and then learn how to write legibly and quickly in a cursive style.
Handwriting remains a useful skill. If students who graduate from high school cannot even sign their own names, they have missed out on a very important educational lesson.