How necessary is it to teach excellent handwriting in elementary school? The answer would seem to be obvious to most teachers: very important.
However, if we look at this much more closely – and logically – doubts about the overall importance of excellent handwriting start to creep in.
The cost of instruction
You have to remember that there is a cost to every subject we teach in school, and that cost is time. Any time spent teaching one subject cannot be used to teach another subject.
In my years of teaching fourth grade, I have heard from many third grade teachers who bemoan the amount of time it takes to teach both print and cursive handwriting, since the responsibility in my school system fell on that grade level.
And that raised a few questions in my mind.
What do adults use handwriting for?
I'm not talking about teachers, who I am certain hand write all of their Christmas cards as well as long thank you notes for all gifts received on their birthdays! No, I'm talking about the other 99% of the population.
Most adults use handwriting to fill out forms, such as the forms necessary for their work (service orders, requisitions etc), or the types of forms you fill out when you go for a doctor visit.
Beyond forms, the extent to which most adults use handwriting comes down to jotting notes or shopping lists on scraps of paper to put on the refrigerator.
If we think unemotionally about the use of handwriting in the adult world we find that it is quite limited and people communicate in written form much more by keyboarding on their computers or mobile devices (or simply using voice recognition).
And cursive handwriting? It's generally used for scribbling a signature or to add a few connected letters to a hybrid style of printing.
So… what's he point of perfection when it comes to handwriting?
Handwriting in school
What do our students need handwriting for?
Obviously they need to be able to communicate their ideas to their teachers because they do not have the manual dexterity to keyboard, although their keyboarding skills are starting to develop quite well by grades 3 and 4 if they have been given proper instruction. But when students are still in the one-finger-at-a-time stage of typing, they need to focus on the words and not the process of getting those words on the page.
Plus, of course, they must be able to explain their thinking in subjects that don't lend themselves to keyboarding, including math and science.
In short, as with adults, school children have very functional handwriting needs.
All humans need to be able to write by hand, of course, but children are actually needing to write less and less in school. This is particularly true as standardized testing moves to online rather than handwritten methods.
The non-existent case for cursive
And cursive writing in elementary school? Simply not necessary. Do you know a single adult under the age of 75 who uses cursive handwriting for anything? Of course the answer is “no,” and if that's true then why do children need to learn it?
Out of every fourth grade class I teach, approximately 10% of the kids will choose to write in cursive if they are given the option and if they have been instructed in using it during third grade. And guess which kids love to write in cursive? That's right, the girls. Why? Because it looks pretty.
I don't mind if my students write in cursive as long as I can read it. The problem is it takes them about three times as long to get their ideas down while they are carefully sculpting their cursive letters.
Video tips: is cursive handwriting important?
I know this entire article makes it sound like I do not encourage the teaching of writing at all, which of course is not true. Writing is an extremely important skill and all children must learn to print clearly in order to communicate effectively.
Handwriting will never truly disappear from our lives and adults need to be able to print neatly even if they are only filling out forms.
However, given that we have time constraints during our school days, I think that any subject, including handwriting, should be questioned regarding how “much is enough” when it comes to instructional time.
Personally, I would rather see students achieve a basic mastery of printing and forego cursive except for learning a signature. This would allow increased time and focus on keyboarding skills. Unless a person is employed in pure manual labor, there is simply no surviving without keyboarding in a technical world.
And maybe we could spare a little of the time we save for teaching spelling – a much-neglected skill in many schools. Great spellers simply communicate better, no matter the type of handwriting (or keyboarding) they use.
And communication – not style – is the point of the written word.