We're Seeing the Slow Death of Handwriting

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Author Anne Trubeck argues that we'll soon see the end of handwriting, and that we're already preparing for the next stage of evolution in communication.

This story is based off of a radio interview. Click on the 'Listen' button above to hear the audio version.

Nuns and school teachers everywhere are cringing at the grave state of handwriting. Are perfectly looped Gs and right-slanted sentences becoming obsolete?

Anne Trubek, author of "The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting" seems to think our culture is heading in that direction.

“The digital revolution is both launching us into a no handwriting future, and also sending us backwards in time to when the spoken-word ruled,” she tells Takeaway Host John Hockenberry.

As for handwriting in school, she’s not sure it’s the best use of time.

“I don’t think kids should be assessed on their ability to master cursive,” Trubek says. “It’s not something that they are going to use much in their lives as they grow older. It’s not something most of us adults in their lives today.”

She suggests that schools offer handwriting or cursive as an elective or art class in the future.

But Hockenberry disagrees.

“There is a joy in seeing a child create a sentence with their own hands, for a parent and a teacher and the child that you just can’t duplicate with typing,” he says.

But Trubek argues that content is more important than the medium of the writing itself.

“Focus on how to teach kids to express their ideas,” she said.  “How to organize their thoughts how to make arguments … The forming of the letters are less important. And there are certainly many ways to individualize what you write beyond the way you’ve circled the ‘I’ or crossed your ‘T.’”

Handwriting does not simply have relationship with output, but input as well. There are many studies that show students absorb information better when they pen their notes than when they type them.

Pam A. Mueller of the Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California published research in 2014 that found students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took hand-written notes.

The idea is that hand-written note taking is slower, which forces students to focus and recapitulate the core points of the information. Other research links handwriting in early childhood education with later academic success. And some professors and teachers still ban electronic note taking in class.

Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, told our partners at The New York Times, "This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong."

Dr. Berninger continued: “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.”  

Related: Paper Vs. Plasma: How the Digital Reading Shift is Impacting Your Brain

Further, more and more states are passing laws that mandate student cursive proficiency — Alabama, California, and Louisiana are among them.

“A lot of people are very adamant about the importance of [handwriting], but at the same time will admit they never handwrite themselves,” Trubek says.

She also believes that people in more oral-based cultures “have much more capacious memories than those of us who live in literate cultures. Just imagine if you could never look anything up, how much more you could retain if you knew you could never just look it up later.”

“Or how empty your head might be if you Google everything all the time,” Hockenberry responded.

So what does handwriting really mean in today’s society?

“For us today, in 21st century America, handwriting represents something individual and unique about a person,” Trubek says. “It hasn’t always meant that in previous times in history, and it won’t always mean that in the future, but right now for us we relate our sense of self to our handwriting.”

Hockenberry and Trubek agree that a written personalized note is often more appreciated than say a text or an email.

Hockenberry recounted a story about his daughter, who needed her passport sent to her while she was away at college. Hockenberry could not resist slipping in a handwritten note that repeatedly said “I love you.”

When his daughter received the package with the penned message, he said “I [received] a picture on my smartphone of it with a bunch of hearts...She was so pleased to receive my dreadful handwritten note.”

He adds: “The value of a personalized typewritten letter and a handwritten letter is extraordinarily valuable, either when I send one or receive one.”

Trubek feels similarly.

“It is the effort that is taken by the writer,” she says. “If I were to write on my computer a long letter, print it out, and then put it in an envelope and write the snail mail address and put a stamp on it and send it through the mail, [that] is meaningful because you’ve taken more time and effort.”

She continues: “And I think a lot of the handwriting we still do today is valuable because people recognize it took more effort to do it because an email is simply easier to do.”