Do Modern Schoolchildren Need to Learn Penmanship?


A darned good question, isn’t it? I’m not talking about fancy calligraphy — the kind that rises to the level of artwork — with which you have your favorite quotation framed. I’m just talking about old-fashioned, cursive handwriting. We learn to print when we learn our alphabet, in preparation for learning to read. In about second or third grade — depending upon the curriculum — we’re given a pen and begin to practice swirls and slants. When I was in third grade, I had to learn to do it with a cartridge pen. Can you imagine the mess thirty eight year-olds can make, learning to load liquid ink cartridges into their pens? I do not think my mother ever forgave that poor teacher.

So, do the children of the 21st century really have to learn this anachronistic skill? It turns out that they do, and not just to be able to sign their names on the dotted lines of legal documents.

According to the latest research, the actual motor skills development of holding a pen in the hand and practicing penmanship does things in the neural connections of a child’s brain that typing does not. This type of brain development includes: solidifying knowledge, becoming more fluent in English, as well as learning a second language more easily, and the stimulation of further brain activity.

I know from experience that my own brain doesn’t retain anything very long unless I write it down. The simple act of writing out a shopping list — whether or not I actually remember to bring it to the store with me — ensures that I’ll get home with all the groceries I need. Writing it down solidifies the information…of course!

Human hands and human brains are complex structures and their interactions aren’t fully understood but they define us, as does our — relative — intelligence. The interaction between hand and brain at developmental stages of childhood appears to increase intelligence, language ability, creativity, and other forms of brain activity and growth. Physical penmanship practice stimulates children to read earlier and better; they learn second languages more easily. There is some evidence to the effect that a child’s small hands may write faster with a pen than on a keyboard — thus, in lower grades, producing more and longer essays if writing is encouraged over typing.

I can touch-type — something close to 60 wpm, although I haven’t been tested recently. I compose most of my essays, articles and novels on a laptop while I look out my office window. Since the invention of word processing, I use the keyboard so often that my beautifully practiced, but by no means “copperplate” penmanship has deteriorated. No kidding. Any ability one doesn’t practice slips away — my signature doesn’t look a thing like my name. Perhaps I ought to lean a legal pad against my knees and write with a pen to see what additional brilliance emerges.