Write of passage: Reports on the demise of good handwriting have been greatly exaggerated
by Brett Buckner
brettbuckner@ymail.com
May 06, 2012 | 3333 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kody James has no one to blame but himself, and he knows it.

“It’s pretty sad when your own Mom can’t read your handwriting and flunks you,” said the 15-year-old homeschooler who lives in Wedowee. “But it is pretty bad.”

Nora James, Kody’s mom/teacher is quick to clarify that she didn’t actually “flunk” her son but rather refused to read his research paper on Gettysburg until he cleaned it up and made it legible.

“It was awful,” she said. “You’d think he wrote it using his left hand. He’s right-handed.”

Kody’s handwriting, which he calls “lazy cursive,” has been a bone of contention between he and his mother for the past three years, ever since he started being homeschooled. To make matters worse, Kody’s 11-year-old sister, Grace, has “beautiful, elegant” penmanship.

“I write like a guy. She writes like a girl,” Kody said by way of an explanation. “Guys have sloppy handwriting.”

While no research exists to back up Kody’s theory, the other end of the penmanship spectrum is rife with clichés about doctors, reporters and schizophrenics and their illegible handwriting, while most guys have at least one old love letter from a past girlfriend filled with sweet missives — totally readable and — with hearts above each lower-case “i”.

But if pressed, Kody has a more plausible explanation for his atrocious handwriting.

“I just don’t care,” he said while his mother audibly gasps in the background. “I’m trying to write fast, to get finished. It takes too long to write neat. I can type faster than I can write, but Mom won’t let me use the laptop on tests.”

Death of handwriting?

As we live in an increasingly digital world where teens communicate via text and instant-messaging almost as much as they talk face-to-face, it’s easy to announce the death knell of good handwriting.

It’s a common concern that’s been decried for generations, says Kate Gladstone, who created a Handwriting Repair website to teach everyone from doctors to high school students better handwriting skills.

“People have been predicting the death of handwriting literally for centuries,” she said. “Back when the printing press was invented, people thought everyone gets rid of their pens and paper. But as long as people are reading, they’ll be writing. We can’t get through life without handwriting. It’s an instinct.”

Gladstone promotes “italic cursive” — a form of handwriting she says is the fastest, most natural and readable way to write by hand. According to Gladstone, 7 percent of students are learning this method, which essentially blends the best aspects of cursive and print writing, compared with 1 percent a decade ago. For homeschoolers, that number is 1-in-3.

“It’s the easiest way to teach children,” Gladstone said. “Cursive … that should be more of an elective, something children can take after elementary school. But handwriting as an art form, as an educational tool, isn’t going away. It’s just changing.

“Handwriting doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be rigged. It only has to be legible.”

Cursive handwriting, however, might be going the way of the typewriter.

Anyone born after 1980 has a distinctive form of penmanship that is both sloppy and childish and virtually never cursive. Cursive writing began falling out of flavor in the 1920s because educators discovered that children learned to read by looking at books printed in manuscript instead of cursive and should thus learn to write the same way. By World War II, printing became the standard form of handwriting across most American schools. Over the decades, daily handwriting as part of school curriculum has decreased from an average of 30 to 15 minutes.

The most recent evolution in the handwriting landscape came in 1990 when Zaner-Bloser, the nation’s top supplier of handwriting manuals, abandoned all unnecessary adornments of what was known as the “Zanerian alphabet.” The change was a matter of keeping up with the times, Kathleen Wright, the company’s national product manager, explained in a recent interview with Time magazine.

“They were nice and pretty and cosmetic, but that isn’t the purpose of handwriting anymore,” she said. “The purpose is to get a thought across as quickly as possible.”

One of the most radical overhauls was to “Q” after the U.S. Postal Service complained that sloppy handwriting frequently caused its employees to misread the capital letter as the number 2.

Are computers, cell phones and other keyboard-driven devices to blame for a plague of illegible handwriting? Hardly, considering that, according to a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, roughly 9 percent of American high school student’s use an in-class computer more than once a week. Rather, standardized testing must shoulder much of the blame for the demise of good handwriting.

“In schools, they’re teaching to the tests,” said Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo professor and the author of a book on American handwriting in a Time magazine interview. “If something isn’t on a test, it’s viewed as a luxury. It’s getting harder and harder to balance what’s on a test with the rest of what children need to know. Reading is on there, but handwriting isn’t, so it’s not as important.”

Legibility

Good handwriting still matters, especially to high school students like Kody.

“I’ve got to take the SAT soon,” he said, “and somebody had better be able to read my handwriting then … or I’m gonna be in trouble.”

In 2006, the first year the SATs included an essay section, only 15 percent of test-takers wrote cursive; their essays were graded slightly higher than those that were printed. And those scoring the essay portion who are unable to read a student’s writing, can grade that portion with an “illegible” score of 0.

“They receive faxed copies of these essays and they aren’t going to waste 90 minutes of their grading time trying to decipher some highschoolers handwriting,” Gladstone said. “They will move on very quickly and they won’t be awarding many points, no matter how good the essay may be.”

The benefits of legibility don’t end with college entrance exams. Several studies have concluded that good handwriting can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad handwriting could drop the same test to the 16th percentile.

As a seventh-grade English teacher at White Plains Middle School, Katie Green’s been known to return research papers she couldn’t read and make students write them over again.

“Traditionally, in middle school, their handwriting is going to be a little sloppy,” she said.

Green, who’s been teaching at White Plains for eight years, hasn’t noticed her students’ handwriting getter worse. Grammar, spelling and punctuation, however, are another matter completely. And the blame lies on their reliance on cell phones and texting.

“They write onto a piece of paper that they turn into a teacher the exact same way they would write a text message to their friends,” she said. “With the lower-case ‘I’ and ‘L8’ for ‘late.’ I can’t stand it. Now that we’re at the end of the year, they’ve gotten better because they know I’ll take off for it.”

But Green does work with her 130-plus students, emphasizing the importance of legible handwriting — be it for the SATs, job applications, etc.

“One reason they aren’t really worried about their handwriting is because everything is going toward electronic delivery,” Green said. “But they’re up for a rude awakening because there will be times when they will have to write things out.

“No matter what they write, if no one can read it, it’s worthless.”

Train the brain

Handwriting also helps to train and strengthen the brain. Research has shown the hand’s unique relationship with the brain in terms of composing ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says “handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.”

A recent study by Berninger demonstrated that students in grade 2-6, wrote more words faster and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus using a keyboard.”

Millie Chastain admits to being a “creature” of the technological age. But as an etiquette teacher and director of the Protocol School of Alabama in Talladega, Chastain advocates writing thank you letters despite having “horrible” penmanship herself.

“People’s penmanship speaks to you,” she said. “Everyone’s handwriting is unique, and it’s definitely in decline.”

There is also a relationship that can be forged with the written word that emails and text-messages can’t replicate, a sense of intimacy, memory and attachment that speaks to the individual reader.

“My mother has passed away, but she was a letter-writer,” Chastain said. “I go back now and treasure those handwritten letters. The memories just flow and I can hear my mother’s personality coming out of her words.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com
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