If you’re over 25, your experience with handwriting is probably very different from what is being taught in schools today. Forty-six out of 50 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, which do not mention handwriting or cursive in their requirements. Cursive has been wiped out from nearly all curricula in the U.S., and there is discussion to stop teaching printing, as well. But should we really stop teaching handwriting?
In her book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, Anne Trubek makes the case that handwriting is nearly obsolete and our desire to use it (and to teach it to our children) is born from sentimentality. Trubek also argues, in the interview, “Is Handwriting Obsolete in the Digital Age?” that the goal of writing is cognitive automacy (not having to think about how to write while writing), so that people can “spend the time thinking about what we want to say, as opposed to how to make the letters to say it.” Trubrek’s work makes me think about what value handwriting offers and whether handwriting should still be taught in primary schools. Additionally, as an educator, I wonder what the impact will be on design and design education if students are no longer taught to write by hand.
When Maria Konnikova explored these questions in her New York Times article, she found that “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” This finding is based on a study of preliterate children from Bloomington, Indiana, in which researchers Karin H. James and Laura Engelhardt compared three instruction methodologies for teaching students about letters: typing, tracing, and hand-writing. They concluded that learning letters via writing resulted in greater neural activity and development. Konnikova goes on to say that, “Our brain must understand that each possible iteration of, say, an A is the same, no matter how we see it written. Being able to decipher the messiness of each A may be more helpful in establishing that eventual representation than seeing the same result repeatedly.” Handwriting both increases knowledge retention and helps build an understanding of the intricacies of letterforms.
Understanding how letters are written, one can better see why letters are structured.
Handwriting itself is a gestural act that demonstrates letters’ relationship to the human form—and by understanding how letters are written, one can better see why letters are structured. The physicality of writing also creates muscle memory, which not only aids retention of content but can hone the artistic craft of lettering. Regardless of whether or not schools teach handwriting, students will not use it as frequently as previous generations, simply because their daily activities do not require them to do so. Teachers of typography will have to adapt how they teach and acknowledge that students have a different relationship with writing. To explore these ideas and questions, I assembled experts in rhetoric, typeface design, lettering, calligraphy, and education. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Dànielle Nicole DeVoss: William J. Beal Distinguished Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University
Gui Menga: Lettering designer and teacher
Aoife Mooney: Associate Professor at School of Visual Communication Design, Kent State University
David Jon Walker: Associate Professor, Austin Peay State University and Graphic Design MFA Student, Yale School of Art
What do you get out of creating hand-written or hand-lettered work? And how does that process differ from work you create digitally?
Gui Menga: Working by hand is material, it’s tactile — and there’s always this connection to discovery. Even if I sit down and I know what I’m going to do, the process will inevitably take me different places.
David Jon Walker: I started lettering as a cathartic practice — it was a way for me to get out of my head after doing digital work. What started as a coloring-book-like exercise turned into this passion for exploration. It’s like archaeology of your own hand. When working digitally, you don’t have as much manipulative control. In a sense, when you create letterforms, you speak on behalf of yourself—versus using the characters of others to communicate.
Dànielle Nicole DeVoss: It is so fascinating to hear you all talk about the discovery, invention, and the creative process because I come from such an incredibly different perspective as someone who has a Ph.D. in technical communication. We look for uniformity — and in much of the work I produce, the contextual, the subjective, and the difference can be problematic. As far as my personal relationship to handwriting goes, handwriting is a tool for memory. I had a brain tumor about 10 years ago that really impacted my memory. I do not bring a laptop to any of the meetings that I go to, I force myself to hand-write because that act helps me remember.
Muscle memory is connected to handwriting. Many students retain information better when they take notes by hand (as compared to on the computer), even though most people can type faster than they can handwrite. The difficulty of having to write things out creates better retention. Handwriting slows things down (which is often the argument against handwriting) but in many cases that expansion-of-time might be a benefit.
DeVoss: The forced slowness and deliberation of handwriting makes kids remember more. Regarding teaching cursive, almost every argument I found in favor was based in nostalgia and whimsy. Such as, “how can we not train students to read the US Constitution or their grandmother’s love letters?”
Walker: Grandmothers aren’t writing as many letters because they are also in the digital age. There’s still a need, but how present is that need?
DeVoss: About three years ago, I had my first student in the class who couldn’t read cursive. She said, “I can make out the letters because I’ve been around it enough, but I was never taught to write in cursive, and it’s a struggle for me to read.”
What do you see as the value of handwriting and of students learning writing at an early age?
Walker: It’s worth it to just slow down. You start teaching reading at breakneck speed, and then you teach students to print. But if you’re also teaching cursive, you teach the students to pace themselves in a certain type of way, in order to learn how to write and to learn how to remember the things that they’re digesting.
Aoife Mooney: Earlier you asked me: What does handwriting mean? What do we see when we look at handwriting? To me, it’s like your gait, how you walk, but in written form. It’s an identifier, it tells something about who you are, and what you’re trying to say, and to whom, and at what time. It can convey whether you’re in an uptight frame of mind, or if you’re speedily trying to jot down what you have to do for the next class.
In thinking of writing as art, I have a nearly two-year-old son, and he is now experimenting with paint. And while he is not drawing anything yet, because he doesn’t know how to control the tool like that, I can see in him the agency given to him just by making a mark. When you ask what we lose when we get rid of handwriting, it’s not so much a nostalgia driving my concerns, but more that if we can’t make a mark and have it mean something to other people, we’re losing all of the empowerment of using a tool in the first place. Making letters goes beyond that mark-making because it also connects you to an agreed upon language — what shapes mean to other people. Through writing you’re given license to be part of a conversation.
Walker: To add to that, marks are innate to you as an individual. They’re no different than having an ID card. And they evolve over time. Your picture as a five-year-old is going to be different as a 30-year-old and as an 80-year-old. And your handwriting evolves in the same capacity.
Menga: Flipping the question: What do we gain if we stop teaching handwriting? More speed? Where are we going with such a rush?
DeVoss: It seems like both a classist and a very Western notion that we’re going to do away with handwriting. It’s an assumption that everyone has access to expensive digital devices and that everyone primarily communicates in online formats. It’s an absolute negation of a variety of communities and cultures, and trades in professions that rely on hand-making.
And it’s not just access to the tools, it’s language. The emphasis in our conversation has been on Latin-based scripts, but the standardized Western keyboard does not work well for many languages. If you’re on a smartphone, you have to come up with keyboard alternatives.
Menga: And we keep coming back to this relationship of handwriting to time. We can understand time better when we are moving our bodies. That’s why when we hand write or when we read on physical books, we can remember text better.
Mooney: In writing, I see a parallel with this idea of the flâneur [the act of strolling] — walking to get your mind going. Walking and writing allow a thought process that other physical states, like sitting still in one place typing, do not. Just by moving your hand and getting a temporal connection going, you’re churning up ideas.
Walker: Writing is the visual manifestation and artifact of the spoken language. To visualize what you’re saying allows you to hold onto that memory, as long as you have the artifact.
“These tiny micro decisions within individual letters build to form a whole.” — Aoife Mooney
DeVoss: I’m thinking about the argument against handwriting and the seeming democratization of all students using digital tools to compose tests. However, in the schools in my neighborhood, they don’t have computer labs or many tablets available for students, but the school across town does and could implement standardized testing by computer if needed. But there’s a disparity in access. In one district, all students have access to computers and software and those from another district would not have those tools and affordances.
Gui: You are all based in the U.S.; I’m in Brazil. During the pandemic, 86 percent of the schools (93-95 percent in public schools, 58 percent in private schools) in the country were affected, because at least 50 percent of students didn’t have access to a cell phone—the only cell phone in the house would be their mom’s or their dad’s, and they had to leave for work. Additionally, 5.5 million students didn’t have access (or had very limited access) to online school activities. It was a mess. To stop teaching handwriting in the U.S. doesn’t mean we should stop teaching handwriting all over the world. But it does mean a great loss, because whatever the U.S. does, other people and other countries will follow. The U.S. is not the first country to discuss this; some European countries have already stopped teaching handwriting altogether. We are moving in this direction of systematization. And this is the digitization of the human person. We are losing this humanity. But we cannot defend handwriting with simply idealized concepts of handwriting. I mean, handwriting is important, but it’s not going to save the world. But by losing handwriting, we will lose something that is important. The question is what?
DeVoss: One of the things I argue, even in the most technical of technical writing classes, is that all writing is creative writing (and an aspect of this creativity is visualization). Even though the students don’t know a ‘spur’ or how to use precise language around the design of letterforms, I want them to be able to see beyond the 25 or so system standard typefaces and to experiment with type, handwriting, and calligraphy.
Do you see any relationship between the teaching of handwriting and teaching of type?
Mooney: I see a strong relationship between the two — I start my type design class with the gestures involved in making different letters. A huge part of somebody becoming fluent with using typefaces is their understanding that these tiny micro decisions within individual letters build to form a whole. In order to wield type in a way that allows it to be your voice, you have to be able to choose and use a typeface, and to me, this is hugely dependent on an understanding of how it came to be.
What happens if we have a generation of students that didn’t learn to write by hand? And does that change how we teach typography and the future of typography itself?
Walker: Well, I think that’s what we’re facing. These students are coming into the classroom only knowing print, and you start to show them examples of historical documents or design with cursive letters within it, and they’re scratching their heads like why is this important? You’re having to teach them how to see the world and how to see their own handwriting, and how to become practitioners of those skill sets.
Menga: Maybe the future of handwriting is only as a specialization. But I would love for handwriting to be taught in art classes.
DeVoss: Handwriting will change shape and become something different. What happens if handwriting becomes less about language and more about art? Handwriting will likely be distanced from the teaching of writing and reading. What will that mean? It’s kind of a scary question but also really exciting to ponder.