The Death of Handwriting

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Sasha Borwick, a 9-year-old Grade 4 student, works on a cursive handwriting exercise during class on Friday
September 25, 2009.

The death of handwriting
December 10, 2009

Andrea Gordon

Living reporter

The bundles of paper are bound by brittle elastics, stuffed into broken-down shoeboxes and shoved
under the bed.

Flowered notepaper displays the familiar swirls and curls of a childhood best friend who moved away.
One glimpse and I am 12 again, ripping open envelopes and fretting over who has replaced me.

A teenage boy's first declaration of love is hidden in a page of scrawl, the three brave words less
daunting to put on paper than utter aloud.
My father's quirky upright script is as distinctive as his blue eyes peering from a family photo. As a
kid, finally managing to decipher it was as exhilarating as winning the 25-yard dash on track and field

There are a colleague's reflections in fountain pen, so handsome they could have been written by a
medieval scribe. Camp letters scribbled in haste by a son who couldn't wait to get back to his canoe.
Words that slump with the homesickness of a sister living half a world away.

Handwriting is so much more than just the message. But cursive, which connects letters in rapid,
flowing motion, is dying.

Kids can text in the dark. Their fingers fly over keyboards like Rachmaninoff at the piano. But give
them a pen and most resort to printing. Asking them to write a thank-you note in cursive is the
equivalent of handing them a slide rule.

We can mourn all we want but font is the future, says David Booth, a longtime teacher, literacy expert
and professor at the University of Toronto.

"There are lots of people clinging to the wreckage and the notion we're going to go back to it. We

With progress comes loss. Cursive's flow works the brain differently and builds distinct cognitive skills.
Handwriting reinforces reading and spelling, develops motor memory as it becomes automatic,
teaches students to focus and may help them remember what they learn.

Neuroscientists know that the brain changes throughout life depending on how we use it.

As keyboards replace cursive, new neural pathways are created and new cognitive skills replace the

Crisp type may be legible but there's much it cannot tell you about the writer. Handwriting, like a
human face, is unique and evolving. It may reveal the writer's fastidious nature or exuberant mood.
Each stroke of the pen captures a moment in time. And like a dancer's pirouettes, none will be exactly
the same. The first letter in the word "Welcome" will be different than the one dashed off in an
exasperated "Why not?"

Then there is the act of writing itself. Perhaps the only way to tell that part of this story is in longhand.

I begin in the library. My instruments are a disposable fountain pen, a lined yellow notepad and my
right hand. At first, it feels like turning over an engine that has sat idle for too long. Though I scribble
in notebooks daily, my formal handwriting is laboured; the first sentences sputter with self-
consciousness. "Unless you are a teacher or perhaps a pen manufacturer, it's a phenomenon that may
have gone unnoticed. Kids can't write cursive any more."

But, soon, the hand finds a rhythm that lets the heart start to emerge. "I luxuriate in feeling the pen
on paper the way a cook relishes sticky dough on his fingers."

There are many reasons cursive is disappearing. In Ontario, most kids are taught the basics in
grade school by teachers who have never been trained to teach it. Few get enough practice or
reinforcement to make cursive automatic.

Booth, who teaches at U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), remembers delivering
handwriting lessons three times a week in Grades 4 through 6 back in the '70s. Students got
evaluated on size, spacing and uniformity of the letters. They had to loop the tails and cross the Ts
just so.

Then public education shifted away from the three Rs, phonics, drills and rote memorization. In came
whole language and open concept classrooms. Out went handwriting and times tables. Today, Booth's
graduate students print.

In 2006, college-bound students in the U.S. provided startling proof of the decline. The SAT entrance
exam included an essay question for the first time. Of the 1.5 million students who wrote it, only 15
per cent used cursive; the other 85 per cent printed.

Ontario doesn't track handwriting on standardized tests but teachers here confirm the trend. Although
the curriculum in Grades 5 to 8 calls for "legible printing and cursive writing," it's up to teachers how
to interpret that.

Assignments written in neat cursive are rare, according to Nadia Bearcroft, head of English at Sir
William Mulock Secondary School in Newmarket.

Even when she uses the phrase "written work," the kids balk. "You don't mean we actually have to
write it, do you?"

The roots of cursive go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, though its use has ebbed and
flowed. The practice of connecting letters evolved for many reasons: it was faster for scribes;
prevented ink smudges caused by lifting a quill or fountain pen; and it changed according to stylistic
preferences and education.
Cursive has endured the invention of the printing press and the typewriter. And, today, there are
some private schools and a few public school teachers who still insist students handwrite fluently.

OISE's Institute of Child Study is among them. The lab school, a crucible for cutting-edge learning
strategies that shares its findings with the public education system, introduced the U.S. program
Handwriting Without Tears seven years ago. Students begin printing in kindergarten, cursive in Grade
3 and keyboarding the following year. Cursive is part of the curriculum in Grades 4 to 6 because it's
faster and more efficient than printing, and educators here believe it reinforces other learning.

"You can write a eulogy to the old style, the fancy traditional cursive," says Jan Olsen, who created
Handwriting Without Tears 30 years ago when her son struggled to write. But even her pared-down
new form doesn't come naturally, adds the Washington, D.C., occupational therapist.

If kids aren't taught properly, they make it up, develop bad habits and handwriting never becomes
fluid or routine. Instead, it becomes a barrier to written expression.

Teachers often suggest keyboards as the solution. Anyone who has watched a school-age child
struggle with handwriting and turn sour on written schoolwork will understand the value of that
strategy if typing provides an easier way.

But Olsen says the price may be self-confidence. When kids master a fundamental skill like cursive, it
builds their sense of competence.

The evolution of my handwriting marks transitions like a growth chart. Grade 4 stories show the
earnest 45-degree slant, elongated loops and painstaking upper-case Gs and Qs of a 9-year-old who
prided herself on playing by the rules. Then, right on cue at the talkback stage, the script stands up
straight and flings off the shackles, loops replaced by naked sticks. There was a brief stint when every
letter "I" was topped with a tiny circle instead of a dot and even a brief flirtation with "backhand"
slant. But by the end of high school, my handwriting was unadorned and functional.

Back in the library, I rediscover the power of cursive when it is second nature, as it unfurls across the
page, building on its momentum.

At the computer, the perfectionist's need to fiddle begins the second the words appear on the screen.
Delete, insert and backspace functions are a writer's best friends. But they can also suck you under
like quicksand.

With pen in hand the inner editor is banished, at least until the essence of an idea has emerged. The
process is intoxicating for a while, until reality intervenes and I'm faced with the sobering results. My
cut-and-paste mind has forgotten that writing by hand requires organization, clarity and the ability to
think ahead.

This is how I wrote every essay in university, pecking out the corrected final version on a jerky
manual typewriter. But after decades at a computer keyboard, those mental skills have gone as flabby
as my middle-aged muscles.

Dozens of pages are spread across the table, repetitive and rambling off in all directions. I can hardly
wait to get back to my ergonomically designed workstation to restore order.

Neuroscientists would say my brain has changed. Ground- breaking research has shown it is
malleable and evolves throughout life in response to different stimuli, a concept known as
neuroplasticity. Those on the frontiers say there's no doubt technology is rewiring our brains.

Avid videogame players are thought to have sharper spatial skills and the ability to process visual
information more quickly. The Net generation brain appears quick to switch tasks, adapt and
synthesize information.

While I find freedom in writing by hand, my children, as digital natives, will probably achieve theirs at
the keyboard.

Measuring the cognitive impact of cursive isn't easy, because it is linked to how children process the
information they see and hear and to the many skills involved in reading and written expression. It's
not as widely studied as those areas.

But Toronto psychiatrist and neuroplasticity expert Dr. Norman Doidge fears that if cursive fades
away, so will cognitive skills that handwriting builds. If children don't learn those movements, their
brains "will develop in a different way that no one has really thought through."

When a child types or prints, he produces a letter the same way each time. In cursive, however, each
letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that
converts symbol sequences into motor movements in the hand.

That is similar to the way a child translates symbol sequences into motor movements of the mouth
and tongue in order to talk or movements of the eye in order to read. That's why Doidge says
practising the complex demands of cursive also builds fluency in speaking and reading.

But some neuroscientists say if cursive disappears, those cognitive skills will simply be replaced by
new ones, just as they always have since humans began leaving their marks on cave walls.
It's not the brain connections I will mourn as much as the personal connections. That's clear when I
stumble upon a note from my grandmother, who died almost 20 years ago. The sight of her jaunty
script, with its curly-tailed Ys and oversized capitals, takes me back into her lap as a 4-year-old,
where I listen to her charm bracelet jingle as her fingertips stroke my arm.

That flash of recognition has been the subject of studies by Dr. Jason Barton, a neurologist and
Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, whose research focuses on the role of
the human brain in vision. Barton's findings, using brain imaging, suggest we recognize handwriting
the same way we distinguish faces, triggering similar emotional responses.

When I look at Granny's letter, the visual information received in the back of my brain follows a
pathway to the "visual word form area" above my ear.

There, it identifies the information as written language, signalling a network of brain regions that
collaborate to process and interpret the material.

In a right-handed person like me, most of this activity takes place in the left side of the brain, which is
where most research has focused. But Barton is one of the first to examine what he believes is a
critical role played by mirror areas in the right brain.

His studies, among the first of their kind, show that while the left visual word form area perceives and
decodes words for their meaning in written language, the right side is where we interpret the style of
writing, allowing us to identify the writer rather than the word, just as neighbouring areas in the right
brain play a key role in allowing us to recognize faces.

As soon as that recognition kicks in, it activates what's known as a memory trace – a biochemical
alteration in the brain created by something learned – and fans out, setting off other sensory

"Once triggered by perception – whether of a face, a voice or handwriting – memory reverberates
through all the senses and in all the corridors of your brain, bringing back emotions, knowledge, all
the different facets of information and experiences with that person stored from the past," Barton

Which explains why one peek at Granny's letter translates to her girlish laughter and the warmth of
her arms encircling me.

Who knows how long those shoeboxes will reside beneath my bed. No incoming
correspondence is threatening to push them aside. It probably never will.
The handwritten Mother's Day poems are tucked away, along with birthday cards and letters and a
stack of airmail envelopes from the faraway sister. But the paper trail has slowed to a trickle, even
from children out of town.

We communicate by text, instant messages, email, cellphone. It's easy, immediate, inexpensive and
satisfying. The emotional connection is still there. But I don't recognize my correspondents through
their unique touch of pen to paper. I identify them by numbers or names in font on a screen. No
emoticon can impart as much enthusiasm as an exclamation mark dashed off by hand. An email gives
no visual hint of how that exam really went.

Sure, electronic messages convey information and even sentiment. But I can't imagine making
printouts and bundling them up with elastic bands. We are more connected than ever before but it's a
connection that threatens to leave no trace.

More from this series:

Writing is a whole-brain enterprise

At this school, cursive writing is a key part of curriculum

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