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Douglas Reeves Makes the Case for Teaching Handwriting
From the Marshall Memo #446
In this thoughtful American School Board Journal article, author/consultant Douglas Reeves asks whether teaching cursive is worth the time and effort schools used to put into it. Handwriting is still a hot-button issue for many educators and parents. What’s the right course of action, given the shortage of time in the school day?
“Handwriting has been in our intellectual toolbox for about 6,000 years,” says Reeves, “with the printing press occupying a scant half millennium and computerized fonts only a few decades of that relatively short spectrum of human history.” Teaching handwriting was once a major component of the elementary curriculum, with millions of students spending hours learning the Palmer Method. But in recent decades, handwriting instruction has declined to an average of ten minutes a day in elementary classrooms. Graders of standardized writing exams are explicitly told to focus on content, not how letters and words are written.
It’s tempting to continue this de-emphasis of handwriting, says Reeves, but he urges us to push back. “By diminishing handwriting, we diminish student confidence and fluency in writing,” he argues. “And when we diminish student writing, we risk catastrophic consequences for student skills in reading comprehension, math, science, social studies, and interpersonal communication. Just as skills in keyboarding, Web design, and oral communication open the door of opportunity for students, so do handwriting skills. Students need multiple methods of communication in the 21st century. Each of these skills requires the care and attention of teachers, parents, and students.”
Fluency in handwriting is closely linked to fluency in written expression and achievement across all subject areas, says Reeves, citing the work of Steve Graham at Vanderbilt University. He suggests two simulations:
“[R]eaders attribute traits of intelligence and character to those who take the time and care to write neatly,” says Reeves. “It may not be fair, but it is reality.” Students need to learn how to write so their audience can easily understand.
But when are students going to learn good handwriting in the already overcrowded curriculum? Reeves contends that 10-15 minutes a day is not enough to develop proficiency, any more than practicing basketball or soccer that little would produce skilled performance. His suggestion: ask all teachers in all subjects and grades to emphasize handwriting and help students develop the form of expression as well as the content. “The entries on the charts in the fitness classes are as important a form of communication as the lab report in science and the graphs in math,” he says. “Students, factory workers, professionals, and families will continue to need to communicate, a need at the core of what it means to be human. Our decisions about writing will either enhance or diminish the capacities of our children to communicate.”