Researchers See a Downside as Keyboards Replace Pens in Schools

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The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it's threatening to finish off longhand.

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.

And those college hopefuls are just the first edge of a wave of U.S. students who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades, frequently 10 minutes a day or less. As a result, more and more students struggle to read and write cursive.

Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say. But academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it's important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades.

Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy....

There are those who say the culture is at a crossroads, turning permanently from the written word to the typed one. If handwriting becomes a lost form of communication, does it matter?

It was at U-Va. that researchers recently discovered a previously unknown poem by Robert Frost, written in his signature script. Handwritten documents are more valuable to researchers, historians say, because their authenticity can be confirmed. Students also find them more intriguing.

"They feel closer to that person as an actual human, that somebody actually wrote that just like me," said Jim Mohr, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Oregon at Eugene, who wrote a book on diaries from the Civil War. "There's a kind of personal authenticity to individual writing that's hard to capture any other way."

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