“Sign here please.”
Anyone who has ever accepted a UPS delivery, signed a permission slip for a school field trip, or filled out a legal document has likely seen this phrase. Although it takes only a few seconds to sign a document, our handwritten signature means we have read the document and accepted its terms. The signature makes an agreement legal.
But signatures might soon become a relic. Fewer students are learning cursive writing, as evidenced by it being optional in Ontario, British Columbia, and Newfoundland. Thankfully, Manitoba still requires students to learn this skill.
Many educators don’t see a problem with dropping cursive writing. After all, handwritten signatures are being replaced by electronic signatures and PIN codes.
If the only reason for learning cursive writing is to sign legal documents, perhaps we should phase it out of education. But handwriting is far more important than for signing documents.
For example, a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed that handwriting engages the person’s thinking in more ways than typing on a keyboard does. In this study, researchers compared the brain activity of children while handwriting with children who were typing. Not surprisingly, they found that writing produced far more brain activity than typing. Children were much more likely to remember words they wrote than words they typed.
In another study, Dr. Hetty Roessingh, a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert in language and literacy, found that handwriting assists young students recognize letter shapes and plays a fundamental role in their development as readers.
According to Roessingh, connecting letters together by handwriting moves the information from the students’ short-term memories into their long-term memories. Thus, the material is more likely to be remembered.
Obviously, handwriting remains useful long after students have finished elementary school. In 2014, Dr. Pam Mueller and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer published an excellent article in Psychological Science showing that university students who took notes by hand retained considerably more information than students who typed notes on laptops.
Mueller and Oppenheimer attributed their results to the fact that students who wrote by hand usually summarized the main points in their own words, and the information was more likely to be processed by their brains. This process helped these students to retain the most important information in their long-term memories.
Laptops made it too easy for students to transcribe lectures almost word-for-word without having their brains work the ideas over. Consequently, students who typed had a worse understanding of the material.
Clearly, students should handwrite notes because it helps them retain more information.
But students need to learn how to write cursively. If they don’t learn to handwrite in school, they are unlikely to acquire this critical skill later in their lives.
Learning is hard work because our brains are not naturally wired for the foundational skills of reading and writing. To master these skills, they must be taught, regularly practiced, constantly evaluated, and reinforced.
The evidence is very clear: handwriting is a useful skill students need to learn in elementary school.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and the author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.
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