Resurrect the Vanishing Art of Beautiful Writing

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Writing has a very long history. It began as simple pictographs drawn on a rock, which were then combined to represent ideas and developed into more abstract symbols. Just like our writing today, early symbols were used to store information and communicate it to others.

Till a few decades ago, writing meant one of two things: You either wrote by hand with a pen or pencil, or you punched keys on a typewriter. That was it. Errors were difficult to rectify. If you needed to change something, you had to carefully erase (while trying not to smudge or tear the paper) or use an ink eraser, correction fluid or tape. But it never really did a perfect work. So, you had to be extra careful while writing those science records and filling the accountancy ledgers. Jotting down a shopping list, writing a birthday card, taking down a phone message, completing a form at the bank … handwriting was a part of our daily lives. We even practiced different writing styles before writing a greeting card or writing in our friends’ autograph books at the end of the school year. There was so much joy and the sense of accomplishment that we felt indulging in such artistic feats is incomparable.

We now have computers with auto correct, dictation, word prediction, Grammarly and so much more. Kids can edit their writing, revise papers without an eraser or correction tape. They can cut and paste anything under the sun. Thanks to Google Uncle (!) it’s easier for them to express themselves.

I don’t deny that for students with language-based learning differences like dyslexia, and children whose hands wouldn’t move as fast as their mind, this caused lots of frustration. The strokes and speed of writing got in the way of expression. Writing became a big source of anxiety for the children.

Modern technology, however, has dramatically changed the way we communicate through writing. First came the PCS, then the laptops and tablets. No strain on the fingers or the mind. We now have computers with auto correct, dictation, word prediction, Grammarly and so much more. Kids can edit their writing, revise papers without an eraser or correction tape. They can cut and paste anything under the sun. Thanks to Google Uncle (!) it’s easier for them to express themselves.

Technology with all its benefits also led to something else: Less focus on handwriting. And that surely has a negative impact on language and literacy. Less handwriting practice can make it harder for kids to learn to read.

Handwriting is a multi sensory activity.

From Montessori Educational Philosophy and Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence, we all know that children learn best when information is presented in multiple ways. That’s especially true for kids with different learning styles and learning pace. We call this multi sensory learning.

Handwriting is a multi sensory activity. As you form each letter, your fingers send sensation to the language processing areas in your brain. As your eyes track what you’re writing, you engage these areas. The same goes if you say letter sounds and words when you write. This hand-eye coordination helps your brain process information, thus speeding up the process of cognitive development.

What about our cursed writing? Oops! Sorry Cursive writing?

That’s the next big question educators across the globe are asked. Should we teach children cursive writing? Research says that learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development, particularly in training the brain to learn “functional specialization,” that is capacity for optimal efficiency. In the case of learning cursive writing, the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice.

There is spill-over benefit for thinking skills used in reading and writing. To write legible cursive, dexterity or fine motor control is needed over the fingers. Students have to pay attention, focus on the work at hand and think about what and how they are doing it. They have to practice. Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that do not participate in keyboarding.

In learning to write by hand, even if it is just printing, a child’s brain must:

  • Locate each stroke relative to other strokes.
  • Learn and remember appropriate size, slant of global form, and feature detail characteristic of each letter.
  • Develop categorization skills.

Cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation. Cursive is also faster and more likely to engage students by providing a better sense of personal style and ownership.

Remember our Hero, Parker, Waterman and Sheaffer pens?

So, parents, educators, countrymen: lend me your ears. There are certain traditional skills that should be kept alive. One such skill is handwriting. I would even advocate bringing back our slate and pencil. Let our little ones begin with writing in a sand, tracing sandpaper letters, move on to writing on a slate, then write on four-line and two-line pages with a pencil. When they graduate from primary to middle school, they can move from pencil to fountain pen. Remember our Hero, Parker, Waterman and Sheaffer pens? Yes, initially writing with a pen did create many messy pages for us. But we learned a lot in the process. Writing with fountain pens are hard but they help in controlling our fingers and creating those lovely strokes and curves.

There’s no doubt that handwriting is a very important academic skill; part of our heritage. The loss of this skill is like the loss of a language. Good writing is like a windowpane. It opens our mind to the outside, great world. Filling a page with neat legible writing is like filling a page with the breathing of our heart because good writing comes from the heart. Let’s revive the art of beautiful writing and help our children become better learners.

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