Particle 5

The Sociology of Handwriting

{Chapter 4}

In an earlier version of this chapter that was initially written for a special journal issue on “New Histories of Writing,” I had been working on contemporary social research into the role of handwriting in early childhood education. There has been a turn towards “naturally” learning to write away from the more rote practices of yesteryear (remember copying out letters on the board, the special rubber pencil holder to help you with your grip, etc.). What studies are showing is the way not learning to write well with one’s hand inhibits the learning of writing more generally. Handwriting according to this research is a key initiatory phase into the more medially varied world of writing. Forgetting that handwriting is itself a technology that needs to be learned – thinking that there is a “natural” writing method – encourages new pedagogical practices to overlook this process and thereby endanger students’ writing abilities in the long term.
To take but one example, as recent research in the social sciences on the acquisition of handwriting has cautioned [1], the current vogue for eliminating handwriting instruction and instead learning to write “naturally” can have significantly negative consequences for students’ relationship to writing more generally.[2] As Steve Graham has argued, “Handwriting may require so much effort for some young writers that they develop an approach to composing that minimizes the use of other writing processes, such as planning and revising, because they exert considerable processing demands as well.”[3] The notion of naturally learning to write not only overlooks the extraordinary corporal investment that learning to write with one’s hand requires, it also overlooks the intimate relationship that handwriting continues to have with newer, more sophisticated writing technologies.
[1] In particular see V. Berninger and S. Graham, “Language by Hand: A Synthesis of a Decade of Research in Handwriting,” Handwriting Review 12 (1998): 11-25; S. Graham and N. Weintraub, “A Review of Handwriting Research,” Educational Psychology Review 8 (1996): 7-87; and S. Graham, K. Harris, and B. Fink, “Is Handwriting Causally Related to Learning to Write?” Journal of Educational Psychology 92.4 (2000): 620-633.
[2] Graham writes, “In recent years, there has been a tendency to downplay or even eliminate handwriting instruction as part of the writing program, as approaches such as whole language and process writing have placed greater emphasis on content and process and much less emphasis on form.” Steve Graham et al., “Is Handwriting Causally Related to Learning to Write?” 631.
[3] Steve Graham et al., “Is Handwriting Causally Related to Learning to Write?” 620.