Symposium on Handwriting Part III: Why Handwriting’s Demise is Still Awesome

I acknowledged that there were trade-offs with less emphasis on handwriting. And, perhaps the most significant is the reduction in the supply of beautiful penmanship such as that exhibited by Tim.

Unfortunately, Tim’s analysis isn’t nearly as persuasive as his handwriting is beautiful. Let me first offer a general critique of Tim’s argument.

Tim claims “So if I understand Josh’s whole argument correctly, he wants schools to limit to a greater extent the time they spend teaching handwriting” and proceeds to list an array of negative consequences that flow from reduced basic handwriting skills. The problem with this is Tim offers no analysis whatsoever of how much handwriting instruction needs to be reduced for children to reach such a level of handwriting ineptitude that all of these negative consequences result. Is 70 minutes per week not enough: if not, why? While I probably favor the elimination of cursive instruction, I certainly never advocated the complete elimination of handwriting instruction; given that fact, it’s not clear at all to me that after 25 minutes per week in class, for example, the marginal benefit of additional handwriting instruction is particularly high. Tim needs to argue that it is if he wants to justifiably claim all of the benefits that he’s claiming.

With that said, let me respond to Tim’s more specific contentions. Tim argues that learning to type is not easier than learning how to write. I have several responses to this:

First, typing isn’t outcome-dependent. What I mean is that no matter how you press the keys on the keyboard, the characters appear the same on your computer screen. So, someone like Tim or I who types improperly is not significantly disadvantaged by that fact. So, sure it might take some effort to type properly with all ten fingers, but that’s not even necessary to become a highly functional typist.

Second, Tim’s idea that handwriting is easier to learn because it’s being honed by other activities such as doodling is silly. I could make the same argument that kids press a lot of buttons these days, between playing video games or using the Internet or even operating a microwave. And, besides, doodling—as can be evidenced by my messy doodles of yesteryear—need not have any sort of structure or coherence and, because of this, may even encourage sloppy handwriting outside of the lines.

Tim also argues that handwriting is preferable because when we are young, the speed at which we handwrite is the speech at which we think. I’m not quite sure what this means: How is this operationalized? How is thinking speed determined and how is that converted to words per minute? The article Tim links to offers no explanation, merely claiming “Graham’s work, and others’, has shown that from kindergarten through fourth grade, kids think and write at the same time,” which doesn’t even necessarily mean that children think and write at the same speed. Even if Tim’s assertion were true, I don’t see why this is a benefit for handwriting. Kids could simply type at a slower rate if they are thinking more slowly than their potential typing speed. And, if they’re not, there’s no problem.

Tim argues, “How often have you started just typing out ideas for a paper, whereas if you had to write it, you would create a detailed and comprehensive outline before starting your paper and then use a set draft system for revisions?” Tim’s right in the sense that, out of necessity, handwriting encourages better outlining. But, the fact is, people write in different styles. I prefer to have a pretty detailed outline even when I type so I don’t have to write multiple drafts. But, some students and scholars prefer to get all of their ideas down first and then work on structure. I think variations of these two approaches work better for different individuals and different assignments. Besides personally preferring to outline, Tim offers no reason why his approach is objectively or universally better. If you are agnostic between the two approaches, you should like that typing gives you the option to do either, whereas handwriting makes the second option much more difficult.

Tim also claims, “I did enjoy your idea that typing makes for easier editing because you can fit more words on a page and ‘you need not flip through pages.’ Was this a problem when you edited your handwritten stuff as a kid?” This was an argument about older students and adults and it’s a pretty strong argument. Just take it to the extreme: If you were to have one word per page, it would be virtually impossible to follow an argument; even ten words per page would make it difficult.* It is easier to process information that is spatially confined. So, yes, it is easier for me to edit and process my typed law school exams where I have significantly more words on one page (that are also more legible) as it for me to edit a written equivalent.

*This isn’t susceptible to argument from the opposite extreme, that one billion words per page would be unreadable. I’m making an argument about words per page and its effect on processing and editing, not an argument about font size and readability. Assuming a standard 10-12 point font, you couldn’t have one billion words per page.

The study Tim links to in order to demonstrate that “kids will struggle more in the subject without having the basics of handwriting down” merely shows that comprehension is the same for children who type and who handwrite math problems for a particular math computer program, but that it takes a bit longer for students to solve problems with typing. This has little or nothing to do with students having the basics of handwriting down: The students were randomly assigned to both groups, with handwriting fluency having nothing to do with their assignment. Moreover, one reason, the authors propose, why there were differences between the groups is because typing math problems is not “natural”: This makes sense; of course, it’s going to take longer for students to do an exercise in a way that they have rarely done it before compared to the norm. This speaks to how their will be some adjustment costs to the new equilibrium* but it certainly doesn’t support that kids will categorically struggle more in math because of typing as opposed to handwriting.

*This equilibrium point actually responds to several of Tim’s other arguments. For instance, his argument that journalists need cursive seems misguided since journalists surely will be able to adapt to using smartphones, laptops, or netbooks and they’ve already been using tape recorders and transcribing for years. The status quo is just one equilibrium and, in this case, not the most optimal one.

Additionally, it’s not clear to me why handwriting has a monopoly over expressive thought in children. Tim claims, “They can write stories to go along with the pictures they draw to help articulate meaning.” Why are the benefits any different if children type stories to go along with pictures? Or orally convey stories, which perhaps is the optimal form of expression for young children? Moreover, children aren’t prevented from taking a pencil and writing on paper if that’s the most “accessible route.”  My argument was merely that handwriting is in a state of demise and that’s a good thing. This doesn’t eliminate the possibility of handwriting when the situation demands it; I just think the glorification of drawing pictures and writing next to it is a bit silly.

I acknowledge, in my first post, that there are trade-offs and I still acknowledge those trade-offs. But, the trade-offs that Tim attempts to add tend to be the result of overclaiming and empirical dubiousness.

In sum, I care about the health of children and don’t want them to have callused fingers. And, handwriting’s demise is still awesome.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on January 10, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    Actually, Josh is probably also an advocate of eliminating “Keyboarding 101” as he only uses his index fingers to type. He would argue that the course could be taught in 30 seconds!


  2. […] back some memories of Josh and Tim’s Symposium on Handwriting (starting with Josh, on to Tim, back to Josh). One feature on the Livescribe smart pen seemed to suggest handwriting might not be dead while a […]


  3. […] it really so long ago that Josh and Tim debated handwriting? Consider Katie Zezima’s piece in the NY Times the next rebuttal, followed by the aptly […]


  4. Posted by Tim on June 24, 2013 at 4:14 PM

    It is three-and-a-half years later, yes, but I was surprised to see that I never responded to your spurious criticisms of my stance, overrun as they are by strange and to me counter-intuitive assumptions that you make. Let’s go.

    The first assumption that you make is that the burden of proof is on me, to show that 70 minutes of handwriting instruction per week are worth it. I believe, rather, that the burden of proof is on you to display how five minutes per day — think about this, Josh, five minutes per day — is enough to properly teach kids how to write. This isn’t an ab workout. We give middle-schoolers five minutes to find their next classroom between periods, and you think that’s enough time to teach a seven-year-old how to write?

    Your entire argument in favor of typing is infused with the expertise that comes from age. Yes, NOW we can type faster than we can write, but this wasn’t true at a young age. I don’t see any proof from you on why young kids will be able to seamlessly pick up typing in a way they can’t pick up writing.

    When I argue that our composition of thoughts and written words is simultaneous at a certain age, you hilariously respond, “Even if Tim’s assertion were true, I don’t see why this is a benefit for handwriting. Kids could simply type at a slower rate if they are thinking more slowly than their potential typing speed. And, if they’re not, there’s no problem.” Once again, your failure to grasp that there is a time in life when one can write faster than type is beyond me.

    Your initial editing argument (and thus the response) is superfluous. No one is suggesting that college students or high-school students or even middle-school students handwrite essays.

    You say that you don’t want to eliminate handwriting when the situation is right for it, but you want to eliminate its instruction, or at least reduce it to a point of no return. That in turn means eliminating it as a viable option.


  5. Posted by John S on June 25, 2013 at 2:05 AM

    Since this argument has flared up again, I’m weighing in: As an outsider, this entire argument seems pretty self-referential. You guys are both just arguing for your preferences: Tim prefers handwriting because he’s pretty good at; Josh prefers typing for the same reason. And it seems like you are both having a hard time imaging people having different preferences than you (I know that Tim has many times tried to convince me that my poor handwriting is just a matter of effort, as if handwriting is uniquely immune from natural dexterity and I only write poorly because I don’t want it enough).

    Also, the entire framing of “handwriting vs. typing” seems woefully outdated only 3.5 years later. In ten years, nobody is going to even know what “typing” is. Most “typing” is now done on a touchscreen, with autofilling and predictive texting. I don’t want to do anything drastic like predict the demise of the QWERTY keyboard, but suffice to say that the future of “typing” is uncertain enough that it’s pretty silly to base an argument off of how you did in Mavis Beacon.

    With that said, I do think the demise of handwriting is lamentable, even as someone who sucks at it. For one, on a simply “Man is becoming too reliant on machines!” level, it scares me whenever we outsource a task to something that needs batteries. But I also think handwriting is useful for the same reason shorthand and cursive are useful skills I wish I had: You both talk about studies that refer to “the speed that people think” as if everyone thinks at a constant speed. This is silly. Sometimes people think quickly, sometimes they think slow. Sometimes that thought is conducive to pen and paper; other times it’s conducive to typing on a keyboard; other times on a smartphone.

    (It’s also obviously true that the tools you have as a kid shape how you think. Just anecdotally, there are kids who can “type” on a touchscreen before they can even really hold a pencil.)

    If we deemphasize handwriting to the point Josh suggests, it’s very easy for me to envision a point where kids simply do not know any way to make letters by hand. And this would be said, if only because it will make us helpless when the robots attack.


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