In this modern age, where technology is literally at our fingertips, is penmanship even a skill that needs to be taught to our children? Is there still a place or need for handwriting in our society?
Once upon a time, people had pride in their penmanship skills. Much time was spent in classrooms all over the world training generations to perfect their loops and squiggles as they learned cursive writing. But, slowly, handwriting is becoming a lost art form, heading the way of the dodo bird and the language of Latin.
Many reports show that fewer and fewer public education systems spend the time that they used to on teaching penmanship. Discussions with different moms on a few forums have left me with a similar impression – that it’s a topic that is either rarely covered, not really reinforced, or completely teacher-dependent. Parents themselves are conflicted. Some were extremely annoyed that this skill is no longer part of the system and push it at home, but several of the moms mentioned that they didn’t feel it was important or necessary, especially given the fact that most children are going to need to know how to use technology instead of a pen.
Although the fact that most kids can type before they can print in this young generation is one of the main reasons for the rapid decline in handwriting, there are other reasons, too.
Time Magazine reports that “[t]he cause of the decline in handwriting may lie not so much in computers as in standardized testing” in their Aug 2009 article, Mourning the Death of Handwriting. One mom who is a teacher told me, “Answering as a teacher here rather than as a mom: This year I was told not to teach handwriting until after the standardized tests were over.”
It’s not hard to believe – after all, schools are evaluated based on their students’ results. And handwriting isn’t on the test.
As homeschoolers, we aren’t subjected to the same standardized experiences of our public system peers. So, where should we stand in the battle for handwriting? Is it a subject that we should focus and spend our time on? Research and experience would lead me to resound an encouraging yes.
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Why is Penmanship Important?
1. Learning to write involves a series of fine motor skills that involve fingers, hands, and forearms. It’s important for children to develop these motor skills as they directly affect future abilities for independence and self-help. Fine motor skills include things like buttoning clothes, doing up zippers, and typing. This is especially important for children with various physical delays, learning disabilities, and sensory processing challenges. Giving them the small muscle co-ordination enables them to succeed with other tasks.
2. For children, using fine motor skills usually requires a lot of concentration and focus – which also is transferable over to other areas of their lives. Plus, it teaches kids to be more detail oriented in their daily lives.
3. “University of Wisconsin psychologist Virginia Berninger tested students in grades 2, 4, and 6, and found that they not only wrote faster by hand than by keyboard — but also generated more ideas when composing essays in longhand.” – (The Week, Oct 6,2010.) Being able to let out ideas in a continuous stream instead of having to find keys or buttons means that children can accomplish tasks to their fullest.
4. While today’s technology allows us to communicate more efficiently with each other than ever before with methods that are always evolving, it is missing one key part that written communication provided us – creative individuality. Each person’s handwriting is as distinct and unique as their fingerprint. This marked individuality is getting lost in the world of fonts and smileys. Allowing our children to define themselves through penmanship is a key part of learning about their own selves. Whether it’s dotting i’s with hearts, or writing in block letters – a writing style that is explicitly their own makes children feel important, recognizable, and special. Plus, it is important for our kids to be able to develop a personal signature for documentation and identification.
5. Personalized comments report that having poor penmanship directly affects a child’s self-esteem. They can feel embarrassed or stressed about not being able to keep up or being understood.
6. There isn’t technology for everything. While technology advances, there are still times and places where handwriting is needed. There are still forms to fill out, lists to make, exams to answer, etc that require legibility. One woman told me, “Technology cannot cover everything. Where I work there are people there who do not know how to write a cheque and they are 18. Mommy and daddy do it for them.” It’s important for us to give our children a chance to survive outside a digital world.
7. Handwriting is personal. Receiving a handwritten note or card always makes someone feel valued and appreciated. Handwriting affects other people’s perceptions of adults and children. Messy handwriting often is judged as being lower quality whereas clear, decipherable penmanship reflects intelligence. Right or wrong, it’s what happens.
Homeschooling and Handwriting
As homeschooling parents, we need to first be positive examples of penmanship with our kids. Handwriting is a skill similar to speaking a second language: if you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s important for us to keep up with our handwriting skills and use it in our day-to-day lives. It’s even more challenging for us who are always near our phones or laptops. Be a role model. Grab a pen and paper.
We need to encourage our children as they learn. Give them lots of chances to attempt, succeed, and fail. Put a priority into penmanship. Make it part of your everyday lessons.
Don’t let handwriting become obsolete. It’s up to us to ensure that the generation we are teaching can write as well as they can type. After all, a pen is a mighty tool.
What If Your Child Hates Writing?
If you have a child like mine, who thinks that writing time is a form of personalized torture, it can take some ingenuity to come up with exciting, different, and off-the-page ways to inspire writing. The biggest key? Take away the pressure and the academic portion of writing. That takes the obligation for perfection away from a child and instead allows for natural learning and development.
Here are some ways to inspire writing creativity in your child.
1. Pen Pals. Exchange letters with your neighbour, family member, or someone far away that you’ve never met before. You can find another homeschooling family who would be interested in having a writing partner and before you know it you have a new friend!
2. Postcard exchanges. Collect a stack of postcards from your hometown (or make your own!) and exchange them with people worldwide! There are many homeschooling postcard exchange groups, including Canada specific ones. Then take all the postcards you receive and find where they are on the map!
3. Grocery List. Have your child write down the list of what you need to get at the store for this trip while you run around the kitchen looking at what is missing.
4. Chocolate Pudding. Make a batch of instant chocolate pudding and place some in a cookie sheet. Using your pointer finger, practice the shapes and motions used when writing or printing. It’s a tasty, tactile way to reinforce penmanship – even if it is messy!
5. Make a Wish List. Take a pad of paper and pencil to the local toy store. Wander around, and get your child to make themselves a wish list of anything they can see. This can be for money they earn, birthday/Christmas gift ideas, or even just for fun – like what they would get if they won a lottery!
6. Diary/Journal. Encourage your child to document faces, places, and moments of every day life. These little memories will be amazing to read in the future and because the activity of writing in a journal is highly personal and non-structured, it may be more of interest than an assignment or project. Just be careful not to “teacher” their journal – no correcting spelling or grammar. This is their safe writing space and they can make mistakes without feeling like a failure!
7. Comic Strip Narration. Print out / photocopy a comic strip which has the words missing from the speech bubbles. Get your child to fill in the missing narration and make an adventure story they can actually see.
8. Board Games. Find a game that uses a pencil and paper as it’s main tools and have a family game night. Some examples of good games to play would be Scattergories, Boggle, or Cranium Scribblish.
9. Use a Quill, Feather, Chalk, or Pen. Using a new medium is a great way to reignite interest in penmanship. Try using an old-school ink and quill. Is it harder or easier to write than with a ball-point pen or sharpened pencil?
10. Mud Printing. Take it outdoors. Make a mud pit, grab a paintbrush and practice printing all over the patio, sidewalk, or other flat surfaces. The good news is it’s washable!
11. Make and Send a Card. There’s something special about a handwritten note. Get your child to make a birthday, holiday, or thank you card for someone they know. Make sure they include some writing – expressly directed to the topic of the card they are sending out.
12. Invisible Ink. Make your message a mystery using lemon juice and cotton swap. To read the message, hold up to heat – like the sun or a light bulb – which should change your lemon juice to brown, making it readable.
13. Calligraphy. Learn a new way to write. Practise old-school, formal calligraphy skills using a special pen. This style of writing is actually an art form, and comes in few variations and styles. It requires focus and practice, but is so elegant it’s worth it. You can even try Chinese calligraphy for a unique cross-cultural learning opportunity. Looking for a good calligraphy starter kit?
14. Use Wacky Story Starters. When the story is outrageous, it makes kids all but burst at the seams with creativity. Think aliens landing in the swimming pool, a genie popping out of your sock drawer and offering you 3 wishes, attack of the Jell-O people…. you get the idea. Need some story starters?
15. Go on a word hunt. Clipboard and pen in hand, send your child out on a word hunt in whatever environment they are in. If you are encouraging cursive writing, ask all the words – even if in manuscript/block letters, to be recorded on their paper as cursive. Give out points for each word they find. What place can they find the most words/get the most points?
16. Chocolate Letters. Melt some chocolate chips with some shortening and allow it to cool enough to touch. Put into an icing piping bag with a fine tip. On a piece of paper, get your child to draw some writing – either the alphabet or phrase that they would like to draw. Cover with a piece of waxed or parchment paper. Using the melted chocolate, trace the letters. Allow to harden and enjoy a tasty letter treat!
17. Pick a Passionate Topic. It might not be your topic of choice, but if it gets them writing, so be it. Does your child have an obsession with Pokemon, animals, flowers, or cars? Use that to your advantage. Get them to make a notebook all about their topic. Each page dedicated for each item. For example, if your child loves a certain hockey team – let them do a page on each player of that team which includes stats, information etc. If they like fantasy role-playing games, let them develop their own fantasy game – characters, settings, items, etc. Let them put it together themselves and be proud of all the new things they’ve learned about their current favourite passion.
18. Make the letters into art. How can you make their handwriting into something else? Get them to write out words then add that “something special” – turn it into an animal, add flowers or dots along the corners to give it stitches, etc. Make it fun.
19. Join NaNoWriMo. Weird name – great challenge! Every November is National Novel Writing Month. The challenge for adults is to write a complete novel of 50,000 words in a single month! They have one for kids too – where they set their own word challenge and work towards accomplishing it. They receive some personal recognition for completion. The website has great thought process workbooks for every level of writer. It’s a good way to get started in creative writing.
20. Write to a Celebrity. Get your child to write to their favourite celebrity. This is something they will be excited about and maybe they will even get something in return!
21. Try Copywriting. Sometimes writing is challenging because a child is afraid to make a mistake. Copywriting shows them exactly what to write and how taking that limitation away. You can make your own worksheets here.
22. Make a Communication Journal. Write back and forth with your child in a notebook – allowing them to ask you questions, talking about their day and their dreams and ideas, etc. and you do the same in return. Ask lots of open-ended questions that start the conversation off and see where it goes from there. (Again, avoid the “teacher” habits of correcting things. Just encourage a response instead.
23. Use Creative Writing. The freedom to develop an imaginary story or adventure can really inspire a child who is hesitant about writing. Coming up with the characters, places, and adventures of a story can be so much fun. Need help with this? Check out the story planner in my learning centre library.
The key is to make it fun, and on their terms while still getting the skills and practice they need. Sure, there will still be times where they will be obligated to do the dreaded writing for the work they don’t want to, but these activities can help them become more confident in their penmanship skills and maybe even like writing!
This post was originally posted as a two-part article series in the now defunct magazine, Homeschool Horizons, in 2011.