On July 7, 2011, MSNBCs, Peter Jennings reported, Cursive handwriting is being described as a dying art form, due to the introduction of keyboarding and simple printing in Americas schools. Jennings also reported that, Illinois schools would no longer teach cursive handwriting and that it is now optional to teach cursive in forty-three other states (Jennings). In my research for answers, I came across many articles, studies, videos and publications, as to why cursive handwriting is important for America’s future. I found that though many educators, scholars and media personalities, agreed that cursive handwriting should stay as part of the curriculum, most just accept and also agreed that technology will be the way of teaching and learning in the future of America’s schools. I also found that America has shortage of certain professions that without the developmental benefits that cursive handwriting has to offer, today’s American school age children, will not have the developmental skills to obtain those jobs when they grow up (Wilm). When I came across a summary that said, that the importance of cursive handwriting in America’s schools has been overshadowed by the availability of personal computers, and smart phones (Gentry and Graham 4); I then asked myself, “What kind of future do America’s school age children have with technology replacing cursive handwriting?”
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In an article by Marion Wilm, an occupational therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina, she states that handwriting is a skill that uses the smallest muscles in the hand that develop precision skills. These muscles are the ones that help surgeons, scientist, and computer technicians achieve their jobs (Wilm). Research shows that America already has a shortage of surgeons with these skills. Dr. Kevin Pho, MD., says, “The number of general surgeons needed to adequately serve the population is estimated to be at least 7 per 100,000 people. Currently there are about 18,000 active general surgeons in the US or 5.8 per 100,000 people. The ratio of general surgeons per 100,000 population has dropped by 26% in the last 25 years (Pho).” Princeton-based historian of technology and culture Edward Tenner, who has researched the evolution of handwriting from the Middle Ages; argues that handwriting is just as valuable a skill for the 21st century as in the past. Tenner claims that preserving cursive handwriting is far from a sentimental activity. He argues that handwriting exercises profound and significant connections between the hand and the brain and is a skill too important to abandon: “States and school districts thinking of eliminating handwriting teaching – cursive or italic – should at least make it possible for a minority of motivated teachers and students to learn the skill and track the results. I’ll bet that [handwriting] can be a key to a healthier approach to education and life,” says Tenner, who recently spoke on the subject of “Handwriting after Gutenberg” at the Plainsboro Public Library, where he found the majority of his audience in support of keeping handwriting in the school curriculum. To his surprise, “the children and teenagers seemed to be as overwhelmingly pro-handwriting as their elders.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Gwendolyn Bounds cataloged the benefits of teaching handwriting and described researchers who have used magnetic resonance imaging to show that handwriting helps children learn letters and shapes and can even improve idea composition and expression. Children learning handwriting is good exercise benefiting their motor skills and also for the development of the brain, which enhances their ability to compose ideas, achieve goals throughout life (Bounds).
Frank Wilson, a neurologist and author, wrote that, “Although the repetitive drills that accompany handwriting lessons seem outdated, such physical instruction will help students to succeed. These activities stimulate brain activity, lead to increased language fluency, and aid in the development of important knowledge” (Montemayor). The important aspect of the movement of the hands is the capacities that develop language and thinking and also, “developing deep feelings of confidence and interest in the world-all-together,” a vital necessity for the growth of the caring and capable individual,” (Wilson). “There’s good evidence that, like other forms of manual exercise, learning some form of rapid writing – cursive or italic or possibly both – is good for the developing brain,” says Tenner.
Recent research suggests that writing by hand helps one retain information, something to do with the fact that a letter drawn by hand requires several sequential finger movements (involving multiple regions of the brain) as opposed to a single keyboard tap. How often have you heard someone say (or said yourself): “If I’m going to remember that I’ll have to write it down.”
Nevertheless, some respected academics such as linguist Dennis Baron argue against handwriting. In his book, “A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution,” he compares the reaction against computers in the classroom to the anxiety and outrage that often follows the introduction of new technology. The printing press, he says, was described as disrupting the “almost spiritual connection” between writer and page; the typewriter was considered “impersonal and noisy” as compared to the art of handwriting.
As far as Rider’s Suzanne Carbonaro is concerned, successful teaching depends on matching techniques with students and the culture of the school. She will speak on the value of bringing technology into 21st century schools: “I love to infuse tools that make my life more efficient and help me stay organized,” says Carbonaro. “As an educator, I support teachers when they implement technology into their lessons.”
As an example, Carbonaro cites teacher Jeanne Muzi at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Lawrenceville, who introduced her first graders to wikis, mobile technology, and video to enhance their critical thinking and literacy skills. “Teachers like Jeanne spot technology that supports her students’ learning and seize the opportunity to infuse it in her teaching.”
While technology often gets blamed for the demise of handwriting, recent developments may stem that tide. New software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, allow for handwriting. Smartphone apps such as “abc PocketPhonics” encourage children to draw letters with a finger or stylus. For those who have not adapted well to the keypads on hand-held devices, applications such as “WritePad” allow handwriting with a finger or stylus, which is then converted to text for E-mail, documents, or Twitter updates.
The Waldorf School’s Caroline Phinney will bring her years as an educator to bear on the importance of movement and play for young children and the value of keeping technology and formal instruction for later. Asked at what age she believes it appropriate to introduce technology to children, Phinney says “when they can understand it.”
As to the argument that children live in a world of technology and social media and that the sooner they are introduced to it, the better, Phinney is unmoved. She points out that any technology available today will have changed exponentially by the time today’s youngsters have grown to adulthood and that the important thing is that they should acquire their own resources of creativity and imagination through hands-on experiences and play.
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“Punching buttons robs them of the opportunity of developing their own resources,” she says. “I watch young children a great deal, and I look at their hands, are they used for digging, for exploring, I believe it isn’t so healthy for them to be close to machinery; they need time to read, to be in nature, to create their own artwork.”
Now retired from teaching, Phinney remembers the fun of forming letters in the sandbox with very young children. “Writing to read is almost a motto at Waldorf,” she says. As for her participation in the TEDx event: “We all have something to learn from each other. In my case, I may be prompted to spring into movement to make my point!”
In schools like the Princeton Waldorf School, handwriting goes hand-in-hand with reading. In fact, says Phinney, children’s initial encounter with reading will be through their own writing. As an example, Phinney describes the process of learning to write the letter “g” by way of a story, “The Golden Goose” (in which everyone who comes in contact with the goose sticks to it). The goose’s curved neck is echoed in the letter “g” and from that the children eventually come to the capital letter “G.”
Many scientists and researchers still maintain handwritten notebooks, with entries carefully dated, in part because they establish a reliable and hard-to-fake record of their intellectual progress – useful in the event of a patent or copyright suit.
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