Lost in Transition

by Tom Nieman

teaching handwriting cursive

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A friend who is a speech and language pathologist and who sits on a school board with me recently sent me a link to a New York Times article, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” It began with a provocative question, “Does handwriting matter?”

Handwriting, To Be or Not to Be

The answer turned out to be a bit complicated. After consultation of several studies by PhD psychologists (one of whom wrote a follow-up letter with five corrections to the article), the upshot of all of the back-and-forth appeared to be:

We should be teaching handwriting in grades K-2, along with teaching how to use keyboards, and that de-emphasizing handwriting because of the Common Core was unfortunate. The reason for teaching it is that the act of writing by hand and associating letters with ideas stimulates the brain and aids its development.

One does not have to do only one or the other; both handwriting and using a keyboard are important for a child’s brain development. Many directors of school curriculum have already given handwriting the heave-ho. Good riddance, they say, in the name of going digital.

Yet, in my life, I realize how important handwriting has been to me. My own is the illegible scrawl of a lefty, and an impatient one at that. Since my early student years I have kept notebooks of one kind or another, often to write down quotes from books I was reading. More often I wrote down words whose meanings I didn’t know and the phrases or sentences they were in so that I could look the words up later. I credit a lot of what seemed to be mindless copying to giving me a wide vocabulary and modeling for me how to write. The act of writing by hand made an impress on my memory.

Now, as a professional habit, I have taken to writing notes in small spiral notebooks during phone and in-person meetings to aid in remembering details. Listening carefully, participating in a discussion, and operating a keyboard all at once simply overwhelm my circuits. Only at conferences, where I am a passive participant, is my tablet with keyboard invaluable. So, it is with mixed feelings that I see the teaching of handwriting being jettisoned from so many elementary schools.

Paper or Tablet?

On the same day I read about the lasting benefits of handwriting, I met another friend for lunch, this one an author of some twenty or so books. He asked me if I read on a tablet. I do quite often, but I am also just as comfortable reading paper books. Then my friend asked the more telling question: “Is your reading the same on a tablet?” He wanted to know if I read in the same way, or did I, like he, find myself skimming paragraphs more often and flipping through pages, surfing through the dull parts. I had to admit I do.

His question led me to consider how my reading had changed since I acquired an iPad. My reading is not more superficial with digital texts, but the ease of flipping pages does increase my impatience at the slightest bit of droning on. The problem of locating exactly where one is in a digital text also increases my agitation, making lines and whole pages easier to skip.

To the good, my note-taking is much improved with an iPad, and access to the meaning of allusions—for example, I came across a reference to Buridan’s ass recently—is but a click away. Further, the ability to download my next book while traveling on vacation or business is one of the more freeing pleasures I know of. With a giant bookstore available in the cloud, why not leave home without it?

And the Beat Goes On

Warming to this subject, I realized that I might also cite my older brother who still uses a digital camera, as opposed to a phone camera like so many of us, and recall that he produces the best family pictures, which he shares on Dropbox.

Ditto, too, for my neighbor who works in his yard on evenings and weekend listening to the dulcet sounds of his phonograph, with its turntable playing vinyl records he collects, blaring tunes out of the upstairs windows of his home, serenading his neighbors with oldies like Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”:

If you think you’re lonely now, huh
Wait until tonight, girl
(If you think you’re lonely now)
I’ll be long gone

I started out in an era with handwriting, paperbacks, film cameras, and phonographs with turntables. At some point, all of these will go the way of phone booths and, like that girl’s man, they’ll be “long gone,” which is all the more reason to appreciate the differences they hold while they are still around.

Tom bioTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.