Too Soon to Declare Handwriting a Relic of the Past

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June 2014

Although many assume handwriting instruction is no longer needed now that we have computers, research across disciplines demonstrates the importance of teaching handwriting. Advantages of handwriting during note-taking have been found in adolescents and young adults. At the same time, there are benefits to teaching computer skills and not simply recommending them as an accommodation. Instead of leaving handwriting behind, we should be developing hybrid writers who can produce legible manuscript and cursive handwriting in addition to using a variety of computer tools for various writing and reading purposes. See The New York Times article—”What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades”—and Dr. Virginia Berninger’s letter to The New York Times editor for some timely and thought-provoking information.

Professor Virginia Berninger, who co-authored the IDA Fact Sheet on Dysgraphia with Beverly Wolf, and Professor Todd Richards, her collaborator in brain imaging, have written the letter below to the NY Times requesting correction of factual errors about their research at the University of Washington on dysgraphia and handwriting. Despite their requests, as of the date of this June 2014 issue of the IDA Examiner, the NY Times had not published their letter correcting misinformation about dysgraphia and handwriting. At the request of the editors of the IDA Examiner, Dr. Berninger has provided this letter aimed at correcting the factual errors. Below the letter are references for two papers Dr. Berninger was invited to write following the National Handwriting Summit in 2012; these papers accurately portray the research-supported views of Dr. Berninger and Dr. Richards. [Email for published papers.]

June 12, 2014
Please print this letter to correct factual errors in “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades,” by Maria Konnikova, June 2, 2014, regarding NICHD-funded University of Washington writing research.

First, dysgraphia is not the result of brain injury. It is a developmental handwriting disorder that can affect spelling and composing. Katusic and Colligan’s groundbreaking research at the Mayo Clinic shows that about one in six school-age children has a specific learning disability (SLD) in written expression, of which dysgraphia is one cause.

Second, we never reported evidence that printing, cursive, and keyboarding have distinct brain pathways. Rather, brain imaging studies identified differences between 5th grade students with and without dysgraphia during idea generation, spelling, novel and familiar letter formation, and finger sequencing. Printing the alphabet (sequencing component strokes), spelling (sequencing letters), and composing (sequencing words) outside the scanner were correlated with five brain regions during finger sequencing.

Third, we never claimed that cursive writing is better than printing or keyboarding. Rather, our research supports creating hybrid writers with expertise in printing (transfers to format most often encountered in written texts), cursive (links letters into word units and may speed up writing), and keyboarding (used in word processing). Steve Jobs, an accomplished calligrapher before making seminal contributions to developing laptop computers with multiple manuscript and cursive font styles, exemplifies the contributions of hybrid writers.

Fourth, although elementary school children composed longer texts faster with more ideas in handwriting than by keyboard, their parents reported computers were used for homework rather than in classroom instruction. Our current research shows value in combining writing by pen and computers in implementing evidence-based writing instruction for letter production, spelling, and composing.

Fifth, educational policy specialists, not classroom educators, authored the Common Core State Standards and included handwriting only in kindergarten and first grade. When teachers’ jobs depend on students’ scores on high stakes tests linked to Common Core State Standards, if a skill is not tested, it often is not taught. Hopefully, researcher-educator partnerships can inform future Common Core State Standards guidelines for early identification of weak handwriting, and provision of evidence-based handwriting, spelling, and composing instruction by pen and keyboard across the grades as the curriculum requirements increase and the nature of writing demands changes as shown by the Spencer LifeSpan Writing group headed by Bazerman.


Virginia W. Berninger, Ph.D., and Todd L. Richards, Ph.D., University of Washington

To read the full NY Times article, click here.


Berninger, V. (May/June 2012). Strengthening the mind’s eye: The case for continued handwriting instruction in the 21st century. (pp. 28-31). Principal. National Association of Elementary School Principals. Invited.

Berninger, V. (2013, March). Educating students in the computer age to be multilingual by hand. Invited Commentary on “The Handwriting Debate” NASBE Policy Debate (2012, September) for National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), Arlington, VA.

Professor Virginia (Ginger) Berninger is a licensed psychologist and former teacher (general education, special education, and reading specialist) with extensive experience in school-related assessment, consultation, and research. She is currently Professor of Educational Psychology (Learning Sciences and Human Development), Learning Disabilities Coordinator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center for Human Development and Disability, University of Washington, and the Principal Investigator and Director of the NICHD-funded, University of Washington Multidisciplinary Learning Disability Center and Center for Oral and Written Language Learners (OWLs). During her 30 years of research on normal reading, writing, and math development and learning disabilities in reading, writing, and math, she has authored, co-authored, or edited over 200 research publications, including 12 books.

Dr. Richards is Professor of Radiology and a Research Affiliate with the Center on Human at the University of Washington studies metabolic changes and functional relationships in the brain during the progression of neurodegenerative diseases and during language processing. His brain imaging projects involve functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of language, memory, pain, face perception, and states of consciousness. He also studies EEG event-related potentials that are co-registered to MRI and fMRI during the cognitive task of face perception. Proton MR spectroscopy is also used in several projects to study neurochemical changes in neurological disorders.

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