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This article was published on March 19, 2018

Kids are struggling to hold pens, but is handwriting still fit for a digital age?

Will digital natives retire handwriting along with the quill, typewriter, and fountain pen?

Kids are struggling to hold pens, but is handwriting still fit for a digital age? Image by: Wave Break Media / Shutterstock
Neil C. Hughes
Story by

Neil C. Hughes


Neil Hughes is a tech columnist, ghostwriter for tech leaders and host of the daily show, The Tech Talks Daily Podcast. Neil Hughes is a tech columnist, ghostwriter for tech leaders and host of the daily show, The Tech Talks Daily Podcast.

Back in 2011, a video of a one-year-old baby girl attempting to swipe on a glossy magazine like it was an iPad went viral. Depending on your viewpoint, the spectacle was either adorable or completely frightening. For many, it highlighted how digital natives were beginning to consume media in an entirely new way.

Fast-forward a few years, and once again traditionalists have provided another stark warning. Sally Payne, a head pediatric occupational therapist, recently told the Guardian newspaper that children were arriving at school without the fundamental movement skills needed to grip a pencil and move it.

As our children are evolving to adapt to a digital rather than analog world, is this surprising? The quill, typewriter, and even the fountain pen are no longer needed in a digital society, so some might argue that that skill is no longer required.

If the future involves typing, speaking, and swiping, why do kids need to learn how to use a pen and pencil? It’s all too easy for baby boomers to look down their noses at kids for not knowing how to hold a pencil, or use a VCR or a rotary phone dial, but these skills belong to a different era.

If you have trouble with your digital TV, laptop, computer, phone, or games console, who do you turn to? Welcome to the world of the digital natives, who need an entirely different set of specialist skills in their brave new digital world.

Those who attend meetings with a physical notepad and a pen only to return to their desk and type up their notes understandably baffle their millennials colleagues. It’s unproductive, and the notes often resemble scribbles of a three-year-old anyway that require an enigma machine to decode.

We can now record our musings or to-do lists in record time on a plethora of devices. Many are removing their hands entirely from the equation by increasingly using their voice too. This is progress, right? Why would anyone want to return to a method that is slower and often illegible to anyone else?

The inconvenient truth for many younger children is they are caught in an education system arming with them skills that won’t be relevant when they leave school. In fact, the jobs they will apply for do not even exist yet.

How to tackle this first-world problem is being met with different approaches. Countries such as Finland no longer consider cursive handwriting classes to be compulsory. They believe that it is more beneficial to provide digital natives with the tools and skills needed to thrive and survive in a digital era.

However, the Write Your Future campaign backers believe that handwriting is the foundation for learning, and that students who write by hand are better connected to their work and more engaged in education. If nobody can hold a pen in the future, does this mean we also lose the art of doodling, scribbling, or drawing zentangles in a moment of whimsy?

There is also an argument that the learning and retention benefits of handwritten notes far outweigh using yet another device. The fact that we cannot write as fast as we type forces us to be more selective, and to understand, summarize, and paraphrase what we write in a digestible format rather than being caught in an autopilot recording mode when typing.

The reality is that we all capture and retain information in a variety of ways. The world is not black and white, and there is no need to restrict ourselves to one option. Some prefer to scribble on a pad while others prefer to type. Equally, some are happy looking at information on a screen, while others prefer to print it out. We all make sense of the world and everything around us differently.

I struggle to see the benefits of handwriting over clean, legible print in a digital age. However, I also understand it’s much more than a tool for communication. It’s part of our culture and identity, and it contains all the hidden quirks of our personality. Should we be surprised? Of course not, but we should protect the most basic forms of human communication rather than completely surrendering our fate to technology.