Around 6000 years ago, not long after the invention of the wheel, Sumerians sat down with a tablet (not an iPad, but clay) and stylus (not an Apple pencil, but a sharpened reed) to record important things such as harvests, laws, and ownership of wheels. At the start, they drew pictographs to represent items like bread, beer, and jars of honey. These symbols evolved into wedge-shaped strokes (phonograms) depicting the sounds of words, rather than the objects themselves. This was cuneiform, our earliest form of writing, and it was considered more than just a skill – it was a mystical artform.
Schools known as edubbas (tablet houses) sprang up to teach this remarkable craft to whichever fortunate children weren’t currently working as slaves. They would study from dawn to dusk.
I can’t help wondering how many complained that their stylus was blunt, or their clay too crumbly? Did they interrupt to ask “How is this useful in the real world?”
From Sumerian cuneiform to Egyptian hieroglyphs, to the Phoenician alphabet to the Chinese oracle bone script, handwriting evolved around the world, transforming civilisations in the process.
But how long will it survive? Right now, handwriting is on the List of Endangered Skills. It’s disappeared from NAPLAN and is soon to vanish from Year 12 exams. The blackboard is now the smartboard. Reports are typed. And who makes students write out lines in detention anymore?
No wonder they struggle when asked to write for long periods. Some flop limply, as if part-way through a triathlon. Others twitch and spasm, their shoulders and neck contorting like the Hunchback of Noting Down. “It hurts!” some moan, hand languishing on the desk like a retired sock puppet.
Exams are the worst. Three hours is a long time to wrestle a pen across a page. The result is handwriting so bad that teachers are forced to become amateur cryptographers in our attempts to decode the squiggles before us. We share the worst ones with colleagues, laugh-crying as we try to decipher their mysteries.
It’s not the students’ fault – they’re not match fit. Their adolescent hands have adapted to ten-hour marathons of texting, scrolling and gaming (which, oddly, cause no cramping symptoms) rather than holding a writing implement. Leading up to exams, they can be heard swapping tips to improve strength and stamina, a favourite being to tape three batteries (no more, no fewer) to the end of your pen.
When I was in primary school, good cursive was a thing of envy, on par with skill in art or a talent for hopscotch.
Younger students fare better. In most primary schools, teachers are explicit in correct pencil grip and cursive letter formation, with incentives offered in the form of stickers, certificates, and – if deserving – a laminated pen licence. When I was in primary school, good cursive was a thing of envy, on par with skill in art or a talent for hopscotch. My printing was especially good, with one exception: spelling tests. If I was unsure of the correct vowel, I’d hedge my bets and fashion a shape that could be any of them, hoping it would baffle the marker and make them err in my favour. This seldom worked.
Regardless of how good a student’s penmanship is in Year 4, it rarely survives into Year 12. Perhaps it’s the introduction of tablets (not clay ones). Perhaps it’s lack of practice. Perhaps there’s too much to write – under too much pressure – and not enough time to do it well.
I’m not one to judge; I’m typing this on a laptop. Keyboard shortcuts are a godsend for editing. And for people with dysgraphia and dyslexia, typing can be an excellent tool for communication.
Even so, handwriting deserves to live on. It’s ideal for note-taking and Post-It-Note-making, and great when nutting out problems. For children, handwriting develops motor skills and helps slow down their thinking. It improves neural pathways, helping students better engage with (and remember) the content.
Alongside these advantages, there’s something enchanting about a handwritten letter. I’d recognise my late grandmother’s looping cursive anywhere. A person’s writing is as distinctive as their voice, or fingerprint. Sometimes it really does feel like a mystical artform, and one worth preserving.