I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first started lecturing and students would come up to the front of the lecturing hall and take photos of the overhead projector notes I was projecting onto the screen. They were supposed to write the notes out by hand, not take photos of them with their phones. And, of course, when I pointed this out to them, they groaned with disgruntlement – the last thing they wanted to do was ‘practise’ their handwriting. But this photographing folly worked to their detriment as they soon discovered when it came acing tests and exams.
A history of handwriting
Human culture has its roots in oral culture – knowledge, rituals and stories were passed on orally. Then humankind started creating simple drawings, and finally from this, the roots of handwriting started to develop. Writing first started out in the Ancient Near Middle East in Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. This stemmed from a need to keep records of agricultural stocks, historical events, laws and literature as civilisations grew in size. The Egyptians developed hieroglyphics around 2800 BCE, whilst in the Far East, Kanji Chinese developed around 1800 BCE. These initial forms of writing involved the use of pictographs (simple drawings which represented people or objects – think stickmen or doodles!).
The Phoenician alphabet arose around 1500 BCE and consisted of 22 phonetic symbols. Since Phoenicia was an important trading centre, it was only a matter of time before the alphabet spread to other centres of civilisation like Greece, Egypt, Persia and India. The Romans then adopted the Greek alphabet as part of their conquest of Greece in around 146 BCE. Around 400 CE, the Roman alphabet then spread to other parts of the Roman Empire, and was used to record transactions, accounts and correspondence.
With the advent and spread of Christianity, being able to write religious scripts out by hand became a valuable skill. Monasteries were established throughout medieval Europe and they were important centres for the development of handwriting. Writing became more standardised under the rule of Charlemagne in late 700 CE. Finally, in the 15th century, the Roman alphabet of 26 letters, came to be the standardised alphabet adopted by most of the Western World. In the 1700s, schools were developed to teach handwriting techniques to officials, and this finally filtered down into the world of general education in the late 1800s. And, about four thousand years after its first inception, handwriting has come to form a staple part of education.
How does handwriting affect brain functioning?
According to Mark Mon-Williams, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Leeds, “handwriting provides an excellent opportunity to teach children the fundamentals of manual dexterity. A failure to teach school children these abilities would represent a neglect of the core building blocks that support a multitude of skills”. He points out that it is the skill that is required to exert a certain amount of force on an object that is greatly developed through handwriting. This can affect other “fundamental control processes” such as “using cutlery, tying shoelaces and playing ball sports”. These are the kinds of skills we take for granted but which we have been able to master because most of today’s generations have been schooled in handwriting.
Mon-Williams also suggests that handwriting skills can impact reading skills. Citing a study conducted by the Proceedings of the Royal Society, he asserts that “a child’s ability to remember and then draw a visually presented shape is predictive of how well they will score on national writing tests”. It is the link between motor skills (required by writing) and cognitive skills (required by reading) that must be nurtured. In other words, reading and writing go hand-in-hand.
I found that when studying for exams, I had to write out my notes by hand as a means of memorising important facts and information. A real-life example Mon-Williams provides for the case of memory being reinforced by motor skills (such as those required by handwriting) is that of entering a PIN – he states that it is “easier to type in a PIN than remember and verbally report the numbers”. And what about working out more intricate information, such as that found in subjects like maths and physics? Mon-Williams’s research also suggests that memory and handwriting are linked: “there’s strong evidence to suggest that processes related to writing numbers also support mathematical development (mathematicians are always found writing formulas with pencils or chalk)”. So, if students really want to ace those exams, they must practise their writing skills.
Handwriting reinforces spelling and vocabulary skills
There is nothing more annoying for an English teacher than a student misspelling a protagonist’s name or a well-known poet’s or author’s name. These are strong indicators that the student has not studied or prepared well enough for a test or assignment. Attention to detail is key! And this attention is reinforced through the process of handwriting.
“From a typographic perspective, handwriting provides us with the ability to see letters as shapes with form, weight, texture and space and this facilitates ease of reading by being able to form and identify letters that are clearly distinguishable from each other”, says Anthony Cahalan of the Swinburne University of Technology. In other words, handwriting helps us to read better.
The recommended age for children to start writing simple words out by hand is between the ages of 4 and 5. According to Pat Wolfe (in Anne Stuart), EdD, educational consultant, early childhood reading and writing skills can be broken down into various stages:
Ages 4-5: learning pre-reading skills
Kids learn to:
- substitute words in rhyming patterns
- write some letters
- pronounce simple words
- develop vocabulary
Ages 6-10: learning to read
Kids learn to:
- read simple books by mid-first grade and know about 100 common words
- understand that letters represent sounds, which form words, by mid-first grade
- enjoy a variety of types of stories and talk about characters, settings and events
- remember the names and sounds of all letters and recognise upper- and lowercase by second grade
- read independently and fluently by third grade
- sound out unfamiliar words when reading
The process of learning to spell correctly is strongly linked to writing letters and words out by hand. Janelle Cox (MSc Ed), an educational writer, insists that the way for young students to best learn spelling is for them to practise common spelling patterns (for example, cap, nap, map, tap), and to “write their spelling words out at least five times each week”. This is because in Cox’s opinion, “the most effective way for students to develop their spelling skills is to practice, practice, practice. Repetition is the key to achieving spelling accuracy”.
It is thus important to nurture the skills in each of these stages. Both educators and parents must play an active role in getting their children to read and write often, if not on a daily basis.
Regular practice of handwriting can earn students ‘extra’ exam time
Another thing to consider is that if your child can write things out quickly and clearly by hand, he/she can ‘earn’ more time in an exam. Misty Adoniou, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Canberra states that:
“There is research linking fluent handwriting with better written compositions. But the key isn’t the quality, form or style of the handwriting, but rather the automaticity of the handwriting. That is, the less you have to concentrate on getting your letters right, the more brain space you can devote to getting your message right. So, your handwriting just needs to feel automatic and natural for you.”
So, if your child can master his/her writing skills from a young age, tests and exams will become less daunting and will involve more fluent thought processes. Your child will be able to focus on what he/she wants to say and should be able to express this much more easily in the written form if their handwriting has become more automatic.
What is the future of handwriting in education?
Until exams and tests stop being written out by hand, being able to write by hand will be a necessary skill. However, this is not to mean that you should not encourage your child to use digital technologies. These are valuable study aids in their own right, especially since most working environments are inclined to go digital nowadays.
Realistically speaking, most educational institutions will still be relying on handwriting as a means of learning for many years to come. This is because “only 40% of the world’s population has access to digital technology” and because “while typing on a digital device might be efficient, timely and convenient, even adults acknowledge that we learn and recall better what we write down on paper by hand” (Cahalan, 2014). So, for now, it seems that a blend of the traditional and the digital will be a more realistic part of children’s education in the foreseeable future. For this reason, we should not give up on encouraging our children to write things out by hand; we will still be doing them a favour in the long run.
Cahalan, Anthony. 2014. Handwriting’s Relevance in a Digital World. The Converation.com
Cox, Janelle. n.d. Activities to Develop Students’ Spelling Skills. TeachHub.com
History of Handwriting. 2016. vLetter, inc.
Mon-Williams, Mark. 2016. Learning Handwriting is More About Training the Brain than Cursive Script. The Converation.com.
Stuart, Anne. n.d. When Should Kids Learn to Read, Write, and Do Math? WebMD.com