Is learning handwriting harmful for our kids?

My son is 6, and he is not super-skilled at writing. A decade ago, that would not have been a problem, because you were not supposed to read and write fluently at 6. However, thanks to the teaching methods based on graphemes and phonemes called “phonics“, English children can now start learning how to read at 4 and to write at 5.

By the way, phonics is one example where empirics methods have been proved right by modern investigation in neurosciences. For an excellent account on the neural basis of reading, but also of learning how to read, one can … read the book … Les neurones de la lecture by Stanislas Dehaene. I think the English version is Reading in the brain.

Anyway, back to my son. He learnt to read quite quickly, and went on writing correctly … on a keyboard. But as some other children of his age, he exhibited two problems. The first one was a problem with symmetry. As you’ll read in Stan’s book, before you learn to read you cannot distinguish between objects horizontally mirrored (as an evolutionary explanation he points that while it is important to distinguish a tiger on its paws from a tiger on his back (dead), it is not so important to distinguish the tiger coming from the left from the tiger coming from the right. Just run). So my son will write d for b, p for q, and half of the numbers the wrong way round. Interestingly, the problem is worse in Britain, where one learn to write “like a typewriter”. See the image below.

Top are British hand-written letters, bottom are French hand-written letters. The French ones are not symmetrical. And looking at the letters written in The Gimp by your author you can also understand that there is a certain genetic component to the problem at hand (no pun intended) …

The second problem he experienced is the conjunction between weak muscles and a strong mind. Because of the former, he writes very slowly (by hand) and the result is suboptimal. Because of the latter, he refuses to go on until the writing reaches what he considers acceptable. The result is a continuous rewriting of the same bit of text and time-out.

Now why is it such a problem? After all he is only 6. It is a problem because the SATs are based on written work. Yes! For those of you readers who are not living in Britain, children over here have their first written exams at 6. Mini-baccalaureates if you wish. So the apologetic teacher had a meeting with us, and explained that she knew that our son was able to count, read, understood stories and able to produce some. But she could not document it without written material, and he would fail his SATs. At which point I had to explain that by 20 only my mother could read me, by 30 not even her, and that nowadays I avoid taking notes because I cannot read my own scribbling. I then felt her despairing a bit, and toying with the idea of contacting social services.

Why do we condition the future of our children on something like handwriting? Who needs to write important documents by hands nowadays? Typewriters have been the rule for many decades in administration. Now, we have computers for all sorts of forms or declarations. Even the traditionally unreadable prescriptions from doctors are now typed and printed. Handwriting is of course a very useful skill, like riding a bike or swimming. But we do not refuse to assess the progression of children in other disciplines, if they cannot ride a bike or swim. The comparison is a bit extreme. But after they leave school, our children will almost never need handwriting any more. The only words I wrote by hand over the last 5 years are my name and address on forms, and loads of totally unreadable new year cards. Why don’t we assess kids using computers? After all, they have ICT lessons all the time, and my boy has to use the Starz system where he can play, work and exchange messages with friends (in a safe and easy to use environment).

But there is more. If you read Stan’s book, you will come across the fact that by learning how to read when you are young, you re-route bundles of nerve fibres that were otherwise essential to orienteering. I.e. either you read or you can find your way in a forest. But that is not a problem for us because 1) not everyone get lost in a forest or need to hunt for food, and 2) we have maps and compass that we can read. So now comes the question: What better usage, or maybe entirely new usage of our brain do-we hinder by polishing all our childhood a skill, handwriting, that will be of no significant usage in our adult life? Are-we teaching our kids “how to find their way in a forest” to prepare them for a life of “reading road-signs and maps”?

Update December 2013: My boy’s teacher allowed him to use a computer for an essay writing competition. He won the competition. Suddenly, he was able to express his creativity rather than spending his time struggling to form letters.

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One thought on “Is learning handwriting harmful for our kids?

  1. This is a very interesting article for me, not least because my son is 7, not great at writing, and currently doing his SATs… Just a couple of quick observations – first about “printing” versus “writing” letters. Although I think you are correct that the majority of schools in the UK teach printing before writing, it is not universal. In particular, the (regular, state-funded) school my kids go to teaches writing first. I think there are pros and cons with this. The reduced symmetry may help somewhat, but I can assure you that it in no way eliminates confusion regarding getting letters and numbers the wrong way around! I also think it is a bit odd to teach kids to read and write first in a way that looks completely different to any printed matter they will ever read and any document they will ever create on a computer. So actually, I think I probably would favour learning to print first, though my wife is a keen supporter of writing first…

    The other observation is about the necessity of writing as a life skill. Actually, although I also have always had poor hand-writing, I think it is an invaluable skill, and I still write a lot by hand. I’ve noticed that if I attend bio or CS talks, I take generally take notes on my laptop, but if I attend a math or stat talk, I take notes by hand (and then photograph them later, so I have an electronic version). Of course I do this mainly because it is difficult to record mathematical equations and formulas quickly on a computer, but even leaving that aside, the hand-written notes I take are generally just _much_ better than notes I take on a laptop. Thinking about and doing anything mathematical is just much easier on paper, and more generally, I think “thinking” on paper is more creative and productive, as you are less constrained than you would be by the limitations or the editor or software you have on your computer. So I’m all in favour of kids learning handwriting reasonably early, and well. In particular, I think that being able to write well is genuinely beneficial in learning new scientific and mathematical ideas. However, there is a question about “how” early, and I think that generally boys, in particular, simply lack the fine manual dexterity necessary to write well when they start learning in the UK at age 4/5.

    The real problem I have is with complete insanity of formally testing kids in Year 2, but that’s a whole other matter…

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