Teaching Penmanship and Typing Skills – Are They Still Necessary?

Back in the BC days (before computers), there were two subjects that were part of a regular curriculum in most public schools: Penmanship and Typing. These both were integral parts of the curriculum, and no one seemed to question their long-term value or importance. However, an educational curriculum is not a static thing; it is continually adjusted and adapted as our society and its needs change.

In recent years, with educators placing an increased emphasis on the Common Core Standards and STEM (science, technology, electronics and math) educational programs, as well as standardized testing preparation, subjects of a lesser-perceived value are being eliminated or seeing the time devoted to them reduced. Moreover, as personal computers, tablets and smart phones have become a part of everyday life for children as well as adults, the value of both courses has come into question, and there has been much debate over whether each should remain as a part of the curriculum. There are seemingly valid arguments to be made to support both sides of the debate, and there is no easy answer, especially when it comes to penmanship.

To Write or Not to Write

Penmanship, now known as “cursive writing,” traditionally has been taught in the lower grades; it was usually introduced in Grade 3 or 4 after kids learned to print and were reading. Up through approximately the 1970s, cursive handwriting was regarded as a necessary skill. The connected letters of cursive enables the writing to flow and is generally faster than printing. It was regarded as a necessary form of communication – for writing letters, taking notes, recording on documents and, most importantly, for a legal signature. Nowadays, computers have taken over many of those tasks, and electronic signatures or no signature at all have become commonplace.

Here are some findings on the Pro side for teaching penmanship:
  • Writing in cursive is generally faster than printing.
  • Handwriting helps develop fine motor skills and stimulates more neural functions.
  • Children might learn to read more quickly and to generate ideas better.
  • Note-taking in long-hand helps students assimilate and retain more of the information.
  • The fluid motion of cursive writing and the connectivity of the letters in words is beneficial to some dyslexics and others with short attention spans who might have problems reading and writing printed letters.
  • Cursive becomes a form of personal expression; once the basic forms are mastered, most individuals adopt their own distinctive handwriting.
  • Learning to write cursive enables one to read cursive more easily. Thus, the handwritten information in old letters and documents could be lost to those who cannot read cursive.
On the Con side of the penmanship debate:
  • It frustrates children with poor motor skills.
  • Some children don’t learn how to hold a pen or pencil correctly – making it difficult for them to write easily; and, in some places, teachers are not allowed to correct the way the child holds the pencil.
  • Most kids now do much of their schoolwork on computers or tablets.
  • A great majority of written communication is composed electronically and read in some form of print.
  • Email, text messages and social media have taken the place of personal handwritten letters.
  • Many educators feel that their limited time is better spent teaching more important subjects such as math and language arts.
  • If one has learned to print, some feel that is sufficient; there is no need to learn a second writing format (i.e., cursive).

To Touch Type or Not to Touch Type

The debate about typing is less divisive than that regarding penmanship. In fact, there seems to be more support for teaching typing than against it. Both educators and parents recognize that knowing how to navigate the intricacies of computers and their keyboards is a necessary skill in today’s society, for both business and personal needs.

In the years BC, typing, or “keyboarding” as we call it today, generally was offered at the high school level, most often as a course for girls to prepare them for secretarial positions – particularly in the 1950s and ’60s. Nevertheless, in some school districts, both boys and girls were exposed to the rudiments of basic typing, especially if they were in a “college prep” track.

Today, most children enter school already having been exposed to the use of a computer, tablet or smart phone. Thus, they are familiar with their keyboards and have likely learned some way to peck out words or messages. Formal introduction to the keyboard generally begins around the second grade, but might start earlier with programs that are designed like a game that children can play and learn some of the intricacies of the keyboard at the same time.

Today’s Common Core Standards say that by Grade 3, students should be able to write using a computer keyboard. However, at that age there are challenges for many children: their hands are not large enough to reach all of the keys on a standard-size keyboard; and, when they can, they might not have enough strength in their fingers to depress the key, especially with their little finger. Nevertheless, they learn the positions of the keys and which fingers to use, and they should grow out of the difficulties.

Here are some opinions on the Pro side for teaching typing:
  • Standardized testing is now being done on computers in many, if not most, schools.
  • Touch typing allows a writer to focus on forming and composing their ideas without having to look at the keys.
  • Typing is a necessary skill in today’s world for everything from email to composing documents to programing and much more.
  • It can prepare kids for the “real world” and for the technology of the future.
  • Touch typing can aid children with dyslexia and help improve memory, spelling and reading.
  • Touch typing is said to improve writing quality and productivity.
  • Touch typing is faster than “hunt-and-peck.”
  • Touch screens and “swiping” messages aren’t practical for all types of devices and, therefore, an individual needs to be familiar with keyboarding.
On the Con side of the typing debate:
  • Kids are spending too much time on screens.
  • If a child has already mastered the keyboard using their own method, whether it is the two-fingered hunt-and-peck system or some other form that works for them, why make them learn another format? As with correcting a child’s grip on a pencil, some do not believe that a non-standard method of typing should be corrected.
  • According to a study by Vanderbilt University, when typing and composing at the same time, typists’ speed slowed down no matter what method of typing used.
The case against teaching typing, for the most part, is not very strong, and educators on the whole see to see the value in children learning to type. It is a skill that will serve them well into the future. Technology and all of its intricacies are not going away, and the more prepared kids are for growing with it, the better off they will be. As for the handwriting/penmanship debate, only time will tell whether it will remain in most curricula or whether it will become part of an elective art form ... or eliminated altogether.

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