Is penmanship being written off?
And learning script took a lot of time.
"We recommended back then - and most teachers did - about 30 to 45 minutes of direct instructions for handwriting and handwriting practice," said Kathleen Wright, the national product manager for Zaner-Bloser, one of the largest handwriting instruction companies.
Wright says they've had to adapt to all the subjects crammed into a student's schedule.
"We realize that that's an unreasonable amount of time, so we've simplified it to about 15 minutes of direct instructions a day," she said.
Today, children start with print, then move on to a cursive, in lessons that have been whittled down over the years from 45 minutes a day to 15 minutes.
Steve Graham, a literacy expert at Vanderbilt University, said, "The script that we teach kids today is simple and efficient. Americans are all about efficiency - getting it down without having to think about it."
Graham says that just as computers are a technology, so are pencils and paper.
"So, are pen and pencils still the most practical technology we have?" asked Smith.
"Well, they're clearly the simplest," said Graham. "They're the cheapest. And in many ways, the most portable, 'cause you can take them anywhere. Are they the most effective, is a different question. Kids who write on word processors over time have better quality writing."
"So, if kids just bypassed handwriting altogether and started on keyboards, would they suffer?" asked Smith.
"Probably not," said Graham. "You want to be able to make your text legible, and you want to be able to do it quickly, okay? It also can help you learn new words if you trace them or write them out. But if you're asking, 'Does it help you become a better thinker?' there's no evidence that that's the case."
Others disagree with Graham, citing studies that show that for kids, handwriting is more effective than typing for stimulating memory and language skills.
And with computers still scarce in some classrooms - and keyboards a poor fit for kids' hands - all agree: penmanship counts.
And Graham isn't ready to write off good penmanship yet. He says good handwriting does matter.
"If your text is readable, but hard to read, then people form judgments about the credibility of your ideas, based upon your handwriting," he said.
So, a kid with good handwriting could get better grades? "Yes," he said. "And a kid with poor handwriting gets lower grades on writing assignments."
Does our legibility get better as we get older?
No, said Graham. "What happens is you tend to peak around fourth grade. And as you write more, what happens is, you've got to increase your speed."
Some of us are reminded of that 4th grade peak the hard way. When then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote a letter of condolence to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, his sloppy hand and spelling errors so incensed her, she released the letter to the press, causing a penmanship scandal.
And most of us don't give OUR OWN handwriting glowing reviews. A Sunday Morning poll finds that while 8 out of 10 of us write at least some of the time, only 18% call their own handwriting "excellent."
Noted calligrapher Margaret Shepherd has written two books encouraging readers to step away from the mouse, and pen handwritten notes.
Shepherd says you shouldn't be concerned about the quality: "Your handwriting is good enough. It doesn't have to be something from a medieval monastery.
"The worst handwriting, the plainest paper, the generic stamp, all that is still way ahead of the best, trickiest, cutest little e-mail," she said. "They're not even in the same category."
After all, so much of our national history has been written by hand … and our personal history, too.
"Whenever I come across a letter of my mother's, it's like I hear her voice, she's in the room with me," she said.
"And for communications between you and someone you really value, a handwritten letter is just awesome. It's a fabulous storage and display device.
"It's much better than a digital file."
And even these fourth graders, still struggling with how to form those cursive capitals, seem to "get" that handwriting has a place.
When asked why handwriting matters, one girl said, "Well, because you can't just have a computer everywhere you go unless you have, like, a laptop. You can't, like, lug it everywhere."
One boy was more practical: "Maybe sometimes if you're like, maybe if you're like stranded on an island or something, then you'll know how to write."
On a desert island . . . on a job application . . . or for the history books . . . it just may be too soon to sign off on penmanship.
For more info:
- "Handwriting in America: A Cultural History" by Tamara Plakins Thornton (Yale Univ. Press)
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