Is the Pencil Becoming Obsolete?

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.
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.

Ghost-writing for the Inspired Writer at WriteSteps, a publishing company which helps elementary school teachers improve writing instruction (October, 2011). The goal of many of our early posts was to establish the CEO’s expertise and raise her national profile by entering the conversation on hot topics related to the services the company offered. This post was shared in several national education blogs as the necessity of handwriting instruction was being hotly debated as the company launched.

Helping children become stronger writers while making sense of the Writing Common Cores can be challenging. WriteSteps offers techniques that help students write clear, engaging prose, and this is what we want to discuss in our newly launched blog.

For our first post, however, we want to join a different but related 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 in late 2009. Throw in the fact that the ELA Common Cores are silent on the topic of handwriting (while saying plenty about essential composition skills) as well as the decision by some districts to make handwriting instruction optional after second grade… And what are teachers to do?

The Common Cores set the bar high for writing skills — composition, that is. We’re glad. This is as it should be. Still, even though WriteSteps is not a handwriting program, we do believe handwriting still matters.  Why?

Handwriting Builds Neural Pathways

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 discovered why. It’s because handwriting involves creating 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 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.

And consider this.  At least for now, the SAT includes a handwritten writing test.  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.

 Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

WriteSteps students proudly type their finished pieces using digital tools, but they also write by hand extensively during the planning and drafting phases.
WriteSteps students proudly type their finished pieces using digital tools, but they also write by hand extensively during the planning and drafting phases.

So what’s the role of handwriting in WriteSteps? We meet the Common Core requirement that K-5 students “publish” their writing with digital technology, while still ensuring that students write by hand – a lot. WriteSteps students organize their ideas by writing them on graphic organizers. They to evaluate, edit, and revise, using the 6-Traits rubrics and 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.

At the end of this process, 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?  Should handwriting still be taught?  If so, to what extent?  How has your school responded to the handwriting debate?

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