A Classical Approach to Handwriting
by Anne Poortenga, Ph.D.
With interactions, both business and social, becoming increasingly digitized, what’s the point of spending valuable class time instruction on the apparently unnecessary skill of handwriting? With the Common Core Standards adopted by most states mandating manuscript instruction only until the first grade and not requiring cursive instruction at all, proponents of handwriting instruction would seem to have a tough case to make. Pointing to practical reasons, backed by scientific studies, many public and private schools continue to provide handwriting instruction even into middle school. Classical schools enjoy these practical benefits of handwriting instruction, but also situate handwriting within the bigger picture of what it means to be well-educated.
According to one expert, handwriting, including both manuscript and cursive, is “a complex human activity that entails an intricate blend of cognitive, kinesthetic, and perceptual-motor components” requiring formal instruction. Such instruction produces benefits in both motor skills and cognitive development. Scientific studies using brain scans have shown that the act of handwriting (as opposed to keyboarding) activates parts of the brain and develops neural pathways used in reading, critical thinking, and impulse control. The brain scans of children who practiced writing letters, rather than merely looking at them, showed brain activation similar to that of adults.
It would seem to follow that students who receive handwriting instruction would experience more success in spelling, reading, and writing. Further studies have confirmed this, noting increased skills in ideation, planning, text production, punctuation, grammar, composition, memorization, self-monitoring, evaluation, orthographic-motor integration, and memorization. Handwriting instruction can contribute to student confidence in all of these areas and across all academic subjects, providing a foundation for higher-order skills which then leads to further academic success.
Another key component to academic success is teacher perception. Studies have shown that teachers tend to give more neatly written work better grades for ideation and quality than less legible work. When graded for content alone, scores for the same piece of writing varied from the 16th to the 86th percentile, depending on the penmanship. The lesson here: Want to raise your grades? Improve your handwriting.
But, shouldn’t lessons in manuscript writing be enough? Why bother with cursive? Proponents of cursive sometimes point out that it is less easy to forge than manuscript writing, but the threat of identify theft would hardly seem to justify much classroom time. One study noted that SAT essays written in cursive receive higher average scores than those that are printed. Another, more convincing, reason to teach the skill is that, for most people, cursive writing is faster and neater. And, despite the digitization of society, there are still plenty of situations in both the classroom and the work world in which being able to write quickly and legibly is useful.
Cursive writing also fits well with the development of the child, being introduced around grade 2 or 3, at a time when thinking and composition begin to flourish. While manuscript writing may be likened to reading by sounding out the words, cursive writing is more like reading fluently. The fluidity of cursive enables the students to get their thoughts on paper more easily, at a time when those thoughts are multiplying rapidly.
Learning cursive is not unlike learning a second language, or at least like increasing one’s vocabulary. It provides students with another option for communicating their thoughts and enables them to read the cursive writing of others, documents produced in a pre-tech era, for example, like the Declaration of Independence or the letters of their grandparents. Cursive writing then can be seen as one more way of acquiring what C.S. Lewis says we need most of all: intimate knowledge of the past. This connection to history has its practical value, but it is of particular interest to classical educators who see persons as part of a larger community stretching out in space and time. Cursive writing, like the study of history, languages, and classic literature, is one more way of connecting with that community.
Another distinctive of classical education is the belief that there are things worth learning for their own sakes and for the way in which they develop our God-given capacities and make us flourish as unique individuals within a community. Cursive writing might be compared to hospitality, conversation, civil debate, letter-writing, and thank you notes, all endangered species, but certainly worth saving. Classical educators could make a case for cursive simply because it is (or should be) beautiful. They could also point out that it is a way of expressing ideas that is distinctly one’s own. We all know the pleasure of receiving a handwritten note. It seems more meaningful than a text, an email, or social media post, not merely because it is longer, contains fewer grammatical errors, and can’t be viewed as easily by all of one’s “friends,” but simply because there seems to be more of the person in the handwriting on the page.
Trinitas provides instruction in manuscript and cursive handwriting for all these reasons. Students copy passages of Scripture during their handwriting lessons and so combine the beauty of God’s word with the beauty of their own penmanship. It’s another way for students to make God’s word their own. Many of you have seen the glowing face of your young student as he hands you a passage of scripture, written in his neatest penmanship and asks you to please hang it up. Is there a better reason for teaching handwriting at a Christian classical school than that?