How Keyboards Handicap Our Kids

Don Tennant

One of the most widely circulated and reprinted columns I've written in my 20 years covering the technology beat is one I wrote back in 1999 titled, "The Lost Art of Handwriting." In that column, I lamented the fact that the keyboard was creating a generation of kids whose handwriting was appalling. Now we're finding it's not just a lost art. It's a lost opportunity to develop kids' cognitive and motor skills.


The column I wrote 11 years ago was really nothing more than a lighthearted, if wistful, observation of one of the prices we pay for technological advancement. Here's an excerpt:

I have a 19-year-old son who is absolutely brilliant. As I write this he is in Annapolis, excelling in his sixth week of the grueling training that precedes the first academic year at the Naval Academy, one of the most highly-competitive academic institutions in the world. Yet I'm here to tell you that this brilliant young man has the handwriting of a four-year-old. If there's anything good to say about his handwriting at all, it's that it's not quite as horrible as the "handwriting" of my 14-year-old son, who has even less experience away from a computer and whose scrawl looks like he was holding the pen between his toes. With frostbite.

What's changed since then is that for many kids, it's not a matter of their handwriting being poor. It's a matter of it being non-existent. Many school systems no longer teach handwriting at all, and I've been shocked to find that a lot of otherwise bright teenagers don't even know how to read cursive handwriting, let alone use it.


An article in today's Wall Street Journal, headlined, "How Handwriting Trains the Brain," explained why we need to be concerned about all this:

Studies suggest there's real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill, even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards big and small. Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning. During one study at Indiana University published this year, researchers invited children to man a "spaceship," actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called "functional" MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and "adult-like" than in those who had simply looked at letters.

There's very good reason, then, to encourage your kids and their school systems to place a much greater emphasis on handwriting. And while the cognitive- and motor-skills development argument is what's crucial here, there really is more to it than that, as I explained in that column 11 years ago:

I had lost sight of just how much of a shame [loss of the art of handwriting] really is until just these past six weeks since my son has been at the Naval Academy. He hasn't had access to a computer all this time, so the only way to correspond with him has been by post. I clearly could have typed my letters to him on a computer and printed them out, but I didn't. I suppose the reason is that I can remember as a kid getting letters from my Mom and Dad and noticing their different styles of handwriting and appreciating that unique personal expression. I wanted my son to see that same expressiveness and individuality and personality in my correspondence with him, so I've been writing my letters to him longhand. Six weeks ago I probably would have said I don't have time to write letters longhand. Turns out I do.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 5, 2010 9:55 AM mataj mataj  says:

Not anymore. Handwriting is making a comeback on smartphones



I use it myself, and it works rather nicely. It's far more useful than that small keyboards they had.

Dec 7, 2010 8:40 PM Dan Tennant Dan Tennant  says:

I would be that former 14-year-old with the frostbitten toes, and the fact remains: I still can't write nicely to save my life. My cursive looks like the scrawl of a boy of 12, and the chicken scratch I write my notes in are illegible within about three hours, after my brain forgets what it was I was supposed to be writing in the first place.

I'm also a writer by profession and typist by trade; I'm as home on the keyboard as my dad is being humorously contrary. I've never needed my handwriting to be fantastic to get by with absolutely zero troubles.

But I still wish my cursive didn't always look like a 9-year-old's birthday card to his mom.

- Dan


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