Do your kids need the benefits of handwriting?

The pictures hanging up are from my niece and nephew. My kids don’t draw. They don’t color. The last time I recall one of my kids holding a pen was when my son wrote his Seven Games password on his shorts because he couldn’t find a piece of paper.

My kid’s type.

This isn’t what I imagined. I grew up with art supplies everywhere. I assumed all kids like painting and drawing and writing loopy letters to pass time. But now I understand that cursive is an anachronism, and maybe printing is next, and kids pass time on iPhones. Yet there are benefits to handwriting that you don’t get when you only use a keyboard:

Handwriting connects our brain to our body. This is especially important for kids with vestibular issues. Kids on the autism spectrum often have bruises and odd gaits because they don’t connect their brain and their body very well. These issues are not small: New York City paid for four hours a week of occupational therapy for three years to help my older son overcome these issues. So teaching kids on the spectrum to write will be helpful. (But not if it’s a huge uphill battle. They can learn to color in the lines or play a musical instrument with many of the same results.)

Handwriting helps with memory and recall. This was especially important before the Internet, when the academic class, residing in the Ivory Tower, differentiated itself by memorizing facts. (Please, someone quiz me on big dates in the history of individualism in western thought.) In the age of the the Internet, people who are great at memorizing slipped quickly from the realm of Einstein to the realm of special ed. (Topic for some enterprising blogger: is autism a function of the brain or of our time in history?) At any rate, we actually synthesize information faster on the computer, as we move ideas around (think: copy-and-paste is the killer app for intellectuals ). So almost no one needs to write to memorize anymore.

Handwriting allows us to mind map. To do lists are linear, but the way we think (when we create lists of ideas) is not so linear, but more like interrelated, overlapping maps. We think in related chunks. My first novel was actually my attempt to answer the question: how can someone write a linear story when our thoughts are non-linear, repetitive, and incomplete?

And I confess that when I want to get a handle on how my brain is thinking about big ideas, I’m more apt to make a picture with bubbles and arrows and squares than a list. However there’s plenty of software to make mind maps, I just don’t know how to use it. So none of that is a great argument for teaching handwriting to homeschoolers.

That said, I let my kids type everything. The truth is that some people will benefit from writing by hand, and they will write. And some people will benefit from a keyboard, and they’ll use it. I find myself writing by hand a lot even though I write on a keyboard for my job.

There is not a perfect answer for everyone when it comes to writing by hand or not. Just like there are benefits to learning to play an instrument but there is no right answer to whether your kid should play an instrument. Or long-distance running. Or cooking. All skills have benefits. The trick is to let your kids decide which skills and which benefits mean the most in their own life.

17 replies
  1. Julia Aidar
    Julia Aidar says:

    I have theorized too whether aspergers isn’t just something that has always been here, but found more ways to be applied in the much more varied skills required in other eras. Today, everything is predictable, people are expected to be predictable and whatever role in society one chooses to follow requires similar skills. In other times, these “off” people would have been great specialists – the iron worker, the hunter, the lone adventurer. They were not “off”, they were just doing their thing, fulfilling their destiny. No one expected them to be great at socializing. You went to them and talked to them on their terms.

    As for writing, we teach the kids. My country does not allow homeschooling, so for now I take them and they teach it there too. My kids learn that stuff easily, early and happily, so I do not mind the anachronism. They were good drawers at two. They love it. On the other hand, husband and I are both musicians, and although the kids love music and can play a bit and sing well, they do not show the same level of interest or commitment your son does, for instance, and that is fine. They are not ten yet, so I think this is the age for cultivating body and a love of learning, and broad concepts about the world. Some of that must come through memorizing facts. I placed a world map on the wall and they just learned all of the country and capital names because they think it is fun, starting with the countries they know, then those of movie plots or where friends and family have lived and visited. Then I took the opportunity to teach the history of the great discoveries and how Europeans wanted/needed to move out and explore. Facts are good tools, too, and one cannot grasp concepts without them.

  2. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    We encountered a new situation in 5th grade this year. The kids research and type their 4 page biography project, have it edited by the teacher, and then handwrite it to turn it in. My husband & I both said, you’re doing WHAT?! They have to memorize a 2 minute presentation on their person and so are supposed to handwrite key facts & quotes on notecards. I know handwriting could have helped Henry memorize it (I needed to handwrite my notes for law school exams) but instead I showed him how to indent the margins and make his document fit the notecards so he could print & tape them for legibility. Hopefully our day trip to Hannibal, MO, to visit all the Mark Twain sites & listening to Tom Sawyer during car rides was important to solidifying what he needs to know.

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Sometime during high school I took US History and the teacher made us memorize every President and the year he left office, in order. I bloody hated that assignment, but I got it done because the teacher taught us a memorization method. I can still remember many of those Presidents more than 30 years later. One of the Presidents was a rhyme: Rutherford Hayes was a son of a gun, he left his office in ’81.

    I hated history. It was just boring stories. So I doodled during class to stay awake. I brought typing paper specially because I wanted there to be no lines through my doodles. My mom found the sheets in the house when they moved out a couple years ago and gave them back to me, and I’ll be damned, I can still remember some of what happened in class on some of those doodles.

    It wasn’t until college that I realized that the act of taking notes or doodling “seated” information in my head. It almost didn’t matter what notes I took, as long as I kept taking them. When I referred back to a particular note, the portion of the lecture that happened when I took it could pop into my head. When I wrote down a formula (I studied mathematics at an engineering school), often I could see it in my head, in my handwriting, on a test.

    Typing doesn’t bring any recall for me later.

    One thing I don’t completely stand with in terms of letting kids figure it out entirely on their own in homeschooling is how there are just things they won’t experience, won’t figure out about themselves, unless they have to for some reason. The “have tos” in school certainly can focus a student, especially if the student has good support at home. I’m not saying send your kids to school; I’m saying how do we introduce our kids to things to open the world to them more, and how do we encourage or create conditions in which they have little choice but to dig deep to figure things out — and learn important things about themselves in the process.

    • Kay
      Kay says:

      There is actually a ton of research in the education literature that shows that the act of writing something down helps the brain to remember it. I am a university professor and now always advise my students to take notes by hand (most of them do not).

      • maggieorganizingchaos
        maggieorganizingchaos says:

        The thing to remember, though, is that everyone learns differently. My son never writes anything down (he isn’t even reading on his own) and he has always resisted writing very much (quantity) but, he can relate everything he’s heard on a documentary of YouTube video months later, right down to words he has never spoken (but, yet here he uses them months later in proper context and can provide an alternate definition as well) – same with facts I wouldn’t be able to retain. The key is that he learns about topics that interest him – and they are varied. I have found him watching ASAP science videos on women’s menstrual cycles (he is 8), or other topics most of us would think an 8 year old boy would not find interesting (so we might not even expose them – like the age-limited and at times arbitrary curricula they get at school). His knowledge is more varied than a schooled child’s, and it also has depth. So, I guess while I personally seemed to benefit from writing things down to help memorization for a test, I recall it was generally when I was not interested in a formal topic.

    • maggieorganizingchaos
      maggieorganizingchaos says:

      Love your anecdote on the doodling. That is awesome, and relatable. But as a parent of a life learner, I assure you that depth is something homeschooled kids benefit from far more than schooled kids because it is meaningful, not arbitrary. It is intrinsically motivated, not extrinsic. Homeschooled kids can delve in a topic of intrinsic interest for as long as they desire, and this exploration goes far beyond what kids learn in school – it tends to be a matter of one thing leading to another, and before you know it, they’ve researched an entire biome and can lecture anyone exquisitely on the topic. Do they learn something about every single thing kids are exposed to in school? Heck no. And, there is no reason they should – I know I’ve forgotten the lion’s share of “factoids” I learned in school, and I have a master’s degree – but I still couldn’t recall the majority of information. But, they do learn what they need to know when they need to know it with ease, just like you or I would do for a job or a home improvement project. Unless they are sheltered for content (as with extreme religion), or made to replicate school at home with tons of arbitrary rules, they generally are not only more mature than their schooled coutnerparts, but they are better at assimilating information and also better focused when it comes to learning formally in college.

  4. Dani
    Dani says:

    I think writing is important to connect us to past but that’s just me. Why should someone draw if they’re awful at it? I grew up w plenty of non drawers. People will continue to write just not as often. Look how hard they’re working on better stylus

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    My son is practicing his cursive right this minute, at the table behind me. He practices handwriting every day, and expanded his practice from my initial suggestions. He exhausted my tedious compilation of sentences that use every letter a couple of weeks ago. Now he’s copying out a good article from Scientific American in cursive.

    When he left school at six, his handwriting was terrible. It also gave him headaches to write, and made him cry. We did a little work with cursive, and cursive helped – it’s actually easier to write cursive than manuscript; it’s why it exists – but not enough. I figured misery can’t possibly improve learning, so I helped him learn to type instead, and for the past five years he’s typed everything. He types very fast now. He never got headaches from typing, which I find curious.

    As some of you know, he’s headed back to school in the fall. At his school, like at many other schools, handwriting is required by some teachers on assignments. Handwriting will also be necessary for note-taking in some classes. So practice was indicated.

    The first time he tried to write again, his writing was about twice as good as it was when he stopped five years ago. The shakiness was gone. Now, after a couple months of practice, it’s about ten times as good. Neat, even, smooth, and legible. And handwriting doesn’t give him headaches anymore.

    If a child has no particular reason to write by hand, I say don’t make him. It turns out it is not a skill that you absolutely need to develop in a certain window. Kids can learn later. I have proof sitting at the kitchen table.

    I experienced the same thing Jim Grey did with note-taking. I can also recall the substance of a lecture from looking at doodles. I didn’t actually have to write many words down, but I had to write something down. Oddly, I didn’t actually have to look at the ‘notes’ later to derive some benefit from taking them. To this day, I can write something down on a piece of paper, memorize it, and throw the paper away. I don’t have to bring my shopping list, I just have to make it. Fascinating how the brain works. I suspect it doesn’t work that way for everybody.

    So, speaking of my homeschooled kid returning to school in the fall, he spent a day there yesterday, shadowing a current student through all his classes. I was at home being oh so productive and definitely not sweating bullets about how his day was going. I learned upon his return that it went swimmingly. He made friends, met his teachers for next year, was happy and energized, and wished he could go back the next day. His buzz powered him easily through all the work he had to do – we had agreed to pile it up, to simulate a school day more fully.

    One of the reasons he chose this school from his options is the music program – they have four different string orchestras, which practice during class hours. It turned out that the seventh grader he shadowed is a violist, and yesterday had sectional practice. The teacher lent my son a viola and he joined in with twenty other violists.

    My son hasn’t had problems making friends as a homeschooler. Like most homeschoolers, we are out and about a lot; he sees other kids every day. Our area has plenty of other homeschoolers, and he makes friends in his non-homeschool activities as well. He doesn’t need to go to school to make friends. But I think he might need to go to school to find his tribe.

  6. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    My 9 yo daughter took handwritten notes for the first time yesterday. She was learning an advanced math concept using an online education program and took several pages worth of notes during the videos. I was more impressed with the note taking than I was with the math abilities.

    I use handwriting on a regular basis. It is a lot faster for me to grab a pen and pad of paper to quickly write my thoughts, put together a list, or organize data than it is to use my computer, pull up the right app or program I need, and start typing or use voice to text. I can be finished with my thoughts in seconds as opposed to the minutes it takes to get the process going via technology. Then, if I need to, I can quickly type up what I have written down.

    When it comes to writing a blog post or a comment on a blog I type for the entire process. But when I’m writing a story, I usually start out by handwriting my outline and plot points. It’s a lot easier for me to do it that way since I think in pictures instead of words.

  7. CS
    CS says:

    Learning to write cursive taught my children how to read it. They can now independently read the hand written cards sent by family.

  8. Wade
    Wade says:

    Here’s a real question for your son who wants to be a scientist – how does he do his algebra? Does he type that? Because students who don’t write fairly quickly have a very hard time in science coursework because they can’t take notes fast enough, and it is hard to typeset mathematical formulas once they get complex. Plus exams are typically handwritten, and to get into a Ph.D. program, you still need to do well in college. I have seen students struggle because they didn’t write quickly, so they couldn’t finish their exams, even with extra time for dysgraphia. Even in the era of electronic notebooks, sometimes you have to sit down and grind out the math, and that means some facility with handwriting.

  9. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Timely post for me. I recently did a complete flip-flop on the importance of handwriting. Now I think it’s really important. Why the switch? I read a book titled, “Whole Brain Power”. That book takes it up a notch – advocating not just for cursive handwriting (on unlined paper) but also for left-handed mirror image cursive handwriting a la Leonardo DaVinci. The big ideas are that using the hands and fine motor skills “grows” the brain. And that ambidexterity engages both sides of our brain. I didn’t just read the book. I implemented several of the wacky suggestions and could literally feel my brain/creativity/energy percolate and not only that….but my golf game just jumped a couple notches. Seriously. All from that book. So I’ve got my kids and my students, for the first time, working on handwriting (juggling too).

  10. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    First thing – great pic of you and Matthew.

    Second, my kids can read cursive, but they’re not that great at writing it. Reminds me of my mom. She can understand Polish, but she’s not that great at speaking it. So that means, I know the five or six phrases my grandmother said to me as a kid, but that’s it. I think that’s what will happen with cursive.

    I still take notes by hand. I work remotely, I have a headset, but I still take my conference call notes by hand. Because I remember it better when I do it that way.

    Lastly, it’s interesting how kids do what works best for them. My older one LOVES the computer. She can do all these awesome things and is especially interested in video production and writing (yes, she is one of those fan fiction people). Oh and she reads ALL THE TIME. My younger daughter is all about art. Sculpting. Cooking. Painting. Crafting. She makes a mess all the time. She wants to quit band next year so she can take more art. Oh, and horses. I was born in Detroit. I’ve never been on a horse. But she wanted to ride horses, so we signed her up. It’s amazing how much she knows about horses four years later. What I’ve learned is that kids intuitively know what to focus on, to “play,” to get them ready for adulthood. I don’t worry that the younger one isn’t all that interested in ready fiction (but she does appreciate a good horse book) or that the older one isn’t outdoorsy.

    Not sure what my rant has to do with cursive, except I think there are to many “have to’s” for our kids these days.

  11. Benjamin
    Benjamin says:

    I like to hand-write. I have to think that much harder about the language I’m using and somehow I find it a better medium for conveying thought and emotion.

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