The Foucs on Handwriting: Does It Help or Hinder

I just listened to a Future Tense podcast asking ‘Is the Writing on the Wall for Handwriting?’  As the parent of a child who has always struggled with writing, it’s something I have thought quite a lot about.  There is sound psychological evidence which shows strong correlations between handwriting and memory retention.

It’s research I firmly agree with.  I know myself if I write out a shopping list I’m more likely to remember what I need, even after I forget the list – and I often do. However, I wonder if the focus on handwriting in this day and age is even helpful.  For all the proven benefits of handwriting, there are losers.

Like my son. His writing is messy.  Really messy. Last year, his teacher treated him like an idiot because of it. It didn’t help that he was bored to tears with the classroom work either. My son, who is an intelligent (and yes, *gifted) child, got a sense of this. Discouraged, he wrote less, not more.  He would worryingly berating himself, convinced he “couldn’t write properly” because he was “so stupid”. Imagine how heartbreaking it was for me to see his confidence and pleasure in learning diminish because his teacher focused on his weakness, not his strength.

*Gifted because of psychologist’s assessment, not because I have my head up my arse

This experience led me to ask a lot of questions about handwriting. How useful is handwriting in today’s tech-savvy climate?  Is the education system right to focus so heavily on one means of output and communication, or should it provide more opportunities for children to show their learning and understanding?  Do perceptions of neat versus messy handwriting reveal unconscious bias which unfairly disadvantage the messy writers at school and beyond?  Before we look at answering some of these questions, let’s have a helter-skelter look at a couple of points in the history of writing.

Writing Systems Are Statements of Power

In the wider scheme of things, writing systems, who uses them, and how they use them, are an emphatic statement of power.  This has held true from antiquity to today.

Would you be surprised to learn people’s access to handwriting has been strictly controlled for much longer than it hasn’t been?  Powerless people – aka women, the poor, servile and working classes – were denied the opportunity to learn to read and write.  In the podcast Ewan Clayton tells of instances in history where rich benefactors would only agree to fund schools with working class students if they were taught to read, not to write.

When women were taught to write across Europe, Clayton said they were taught a limited and different “form of letter” to ‘male writing’.  Why? Because gendered writing gave men in the seats of power the ability to actively discriminate against the female author, and try to contain the advancement of women.  They wanted middle to upper-class ladies to be better companions, but let’s not get carried away now. Let’s not give them the power to influence. Well, at least in the Western world, they could only keep a lid on that for so long.


President John F. Kennedy’s handwritten draft of his inaugural address.

The Pervasive Power of Unconscious Bias

But we’re past that sort of thinking now, aren’t we?  Well, when I think of the way Mr 7 was treated last year, I have to say no, we’re not.  Despite the jokes about doctor’s illegible handwriting, neat handwriting is still seen as a measure of intelligence.  Professor Anne Trubek, author of Handwriting and its Uncertain Future agrees:


‘…if you have a poorly written handwritten essay, and a nicely written handwritten essay, they are going to receive different grades. But if you have two typewritten ones, they are going to receive the same grade.”

Handwriting carries unhelpful bias in its emotional baggage not worth repeating.  So why are we?

Cultural Evolution Is Changing Our Children’s Skillset

There is a lot of unease about technology in classrooms.  I myself have voiced it.  My husband and I do not have tablets, we’re not on our phones while we sit as a family. At his point we have no plans of handing our children an iPad (or similar).

I’m a realist, and children should learn handwriting. But by insisting doggedly that all children must use handwriting most of the time, we’re holding some of them back: I’ve seen that in my little study of one.  Are we trying too hard to hold back the tides of writing’s ‘natural’ evolution?

As I mentioned before:  we’re in the talk-to-text age now.  Even I, self-described technology-phobe, have started using the talk-to-text option on my phone instead of texting with my thumbs.  We have SIRI, we have Google, and many other companies manufacturing software so that we don’t have to use handwriting OR typing.  As much as people fear the lack of mental cognition that takes place when someone types instead of writing, Clive Thomas, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired made an interesting comment on the way voice-to-text compositions are made:

‘I think in some respects I may be closer to someone writing back in the days of Wordsworth, because if you’ve ever tried to write with a quill pen, dipping it in ink, it is an unforgiving process. You go very slowly and you go very inefficiently and it’s hard to fix errors. What little we know of the mental practices of people back in the old days of ink quill writing is that they also composed their sentences in their heads before they started writing.’ 

–Clive Thomas, New York Times and Wired

When I dictate a text message, I go through a mental process very closely akin to the way I write poetry (my poems always begin on paper).  The crossings out, the rearranging, the no-that-sounds-like-crap-lets-scrap-it-NO-actually-it-was-good-cycle etc, all happen ‘up stairs’ before I even voice the sentence.  Thomas goes on to suggest new methods of teaching in the classroom:

‘If people are going to be doing composition with their voice, could we teach and train them to do it well, to avoid poor habits, in the same way that when we teach people to hand-write and teach them to type?’

This very salient question brings me back to the poets of antiquity, the tellers of ancient epics of origins unknown.  These stories were passed on in a specific oral tradition which dictates a certain form of speaking and remembering, one that’s all but lost to our literate society.  In the podcast Prof Trubek points out the loss of the much richer types of individual and cultural memories as a result of a people “enter[ing] a literate culture”.  If Thompson’s idea of teaching proper voice composition comes to fruition, could talk to text restore those types of ‘oral’ memories and traditions to our culture and society without sacrificing the much-loved, much-valued written word? This seems like an incredible boon.

Is Fear Of Change Driving Our Attachment To Handwriting?

Handwriting carries with it some bias and traditions I’d rather not have my children fall victim to. Once handwriting was the only choice apart outside oral tradition.  Now technology enables us to achieve synthesis between oral traditions and technology like never before.

I’m going to quote Professor Trubek once more, because I think as a society and culture we are very focused on what’s happening NOW – it can be helpful to have a more holistic view through the cyclical nature of history.

‘Writing and technology have gone through many revolutions or changes in the 6,000 years since humans have been writing. So it is huge. But it is just part of a transition … and we’ve seen people have the same anxieties and fears with each change.’

–Prof Anne Trubeck

Our society is moving away from handwriting at the moment, and in light of all the technology we have available, it could make the creation of the written word and exchange of stories a more inclusive space. Isn’t that a good thing?   

For my two cents worth, I don’t think handwriting is ever going away.  Handwriting is such a personal thing, writing a letter to someone, a card, a poem in this day in age is an extremely sentimental act; I’m aware that when I do these things I’m driven by sentiment, and the recipient will be touched by my gesture for the very same reason.

That makes me very happy.

 There’s too much boring content on the web – why insult your reader’s intelligence? When I’m not blogging about things that I find interesting, I’m a working freelance copywriter and you’re in luck – blogging’s my superpower.  If you think your readers want copy and content that is genuinely interesting and challenges accepted norms, give me a hoy here.

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