By Jack R. Merchant, Ph.D.
Handwriting is a lost art. This statement comes as no surprise to anyone who has attempted to decipher the penmanship of students from kindergarten to university. In recent years I have tried to give comprehension to the scribbles of college students’ bluebook examinations, secondary school students’ essays, and primary school students’ paragraphs. The situation is such that when I come across good, or even legible, handwriting I find myself somewhere along the emotional continuum from surprised to shocked! As an historian I can harbor somewhat romantic feelings about the past — letters, postcards, notebooks — pen and paper, and the tactile energy they transmit. Be this as it may, the fait accompli I faced with regards to horrific penmanship left me apathetic: “Kids in elementary school today will either type or, more likely, dictate by the time they are in high school and college,” I have often thought to myself. When they are adults, handwriting will be an antiquated and useless skill, like knowing Morse Code or how to use a slide-rule. My work with younger students, particularly those in early primary school, has made me reconsider this opinion. I have come to recognize good penmanship as an essential component of every students’ foundation of learning and thinking, akin to basic arithmetic, reading comprehension, and spelling.
Though there are likely more, I can think of 5 reasons why this is so. First, parents and teachers who have insisted on good handwriting have shared an invaluable lesson about learning with their students. Learning any skill, be it how to ride a bike, hit a curve ball, speak Spanish, or write with consistent legibility takes practice and hard work. There seems to be a persistent and somewhat misleading insistence among both teachers and parents that education and learning must be made ‘fun’ for the student, as if enjoyment is the first virtue of education children should recognize. I say ‘misleading’ because adults, like their kids, know that learning can be mundane and boring. This is especially true in the initial stages of learning any new skill. I recall loathing sitting at my family’s kitchen table as a five year old trying to learn how to read. I also remember how much discipline and persistence it took to spend hours memorizing vocabulary only to be laughed out of the market when I tried to purchase some bananas in my initial stages of learning Vietnamese in Vietnam. Everyone has memories like these — of skills they have since mastered and come to enjoy, but either struggled with or just didn’t like at first. Handwriting is one of the first opportunities we as a society provide children to learn how to cope with and overcome the mundanity with which we are often faced both in and out of the classroom. By not insisting on at least competence, we do young students a great disservice and hamper their ability to overcome the challenges, both mundane and difficult, that they are sure to encounter throughout their scholastic careers.
Second, the practice of good handwriting slows students down and promotes concentration. We have made speed one of the paramount virtues of our society. We race around, multitasking, checking our phones every couple of minutes, without even enough time to sit at a table and eat, and expect our children to concentrate on single tasks for chunks of time we find it hard to fathom. Like any other skill, when children learn to write they do it slowly. As their penmanship improves, they begin to write faster while maintaining legibility. Students with good handwriting tend to write slower than children with indecipherable script. The conscientiousness students take with their penmanship often correlates to the quality of their work. Even talented students are prone to careless mistakes when they scribble and rush through assignments. Good handwriting allows them to slow down and pay attention to what they are doing — the results are fewer errors and greater capacity to pay attention for longer periods of time.
To be completed in Part 2 …