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Pencils Down

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At one time, "neatness counts" was as common a classroom phrase as "raise your hand," and penmanship ranked right up with math and spelling on the weekly educational roster. But in an increasingly digital world, the skill—or art—of neat handwriting may be going the way of the ditto machine. Some educators are bemoaning penmanship's fall from grace in the face of increasing testing demands and ubiquitous computer use. The concern is especially strong among occupational therapists who work in public schools. "Handwriting is the number-one way elementary school students provide feedback to their teachers about what they've learned," said occupational therapist Sandy Purvis. Penmanship also "improves the ability to connect the mind to the body to increase focus and attention," she said—skills that would benefit nearly any student. As students get older, good handwriting translates to legible notes, cleaner SAT essay answers, and nicer thank-you letters after college interviews. But all the genteel benefits in the world may not be able to secure penmanship's place in the classroom, especially for students beyond the third grade. "It's pretty clear that as time goes on, people are doing less and less writing by hand, " said University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman. "I suppose it only makes sense to spend less time practicing handwriting and more time practicing other things."

9 Comments

I don't know if this is good or bad but it kind of drives me crazy. I am going into teaching as a second career and we have a 13 year old son that is going into 8th grade who has terrible handwriting. I still think schools should spend more time writing by hand so students get some practice writing by hand.

I have noticed this with college level (and graduate student) interns - and was wondering if anyone else was concerned. Many (the exceptions seem to be those who went to parochial schools) have the handwriting of six year olds. The same is true, alas, for typos and grammar in emails; they have to be taught that a corporate communication is not the same as an instant message to your best friend.

I teach 7th grade and my beef is not so much penmanship but the kids' inability to read and write in cursive!

This topic is being discussed in our district. 3rd grade teachers spend valuable time teaching cursive, and after that many teachers don't even require students to use cursive. Should teachers spend so much time on cursive when there are subject areas being state-tested that sure could use it?

Has anyone out there read the importance of handwriting to learning?
Cursive writing is important to the way the brain functions and it relates to developing children's ability to "cross the mid-line" and reading skills.
Cursive is necessary in notetaking, reporting, writing thank you notes etc.
Research yourselves on how cursive handwriting helps learning, you will be surprised!

I have to disagree about cursive being necessary. Although I was taught cursive as a child, after learning lettering in Architecture school I abandoned cursive altogether. I do, however, agree that neatness counts. It shows that you care about quality. It makes first-impressions. It allows you to take clear notes and read what you have written in your day planner. My handwriting is extremely neat (it's been called "font-like"), but always is in print. I fail to see how this is detrimental to me in any way. Why not focus on neatness rather than cursive?

It has become apparent to me over sixteen years of teaching, that those students who do not use cursive writing are at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to their peers, regardless of the level of their intellect. Poor printers can leave gaps in the middle of words and irregular spaces between words. Generally, good readers read whole words, not single letters. Anything which gets in the way of the conveyance of meaning is a detriment to any composition. When I evaluate a student's work, the more times I must stop to double check, or try to make a connection between letters and the words they are meant to form, the lower I will evaluate that piece of writing. This is in spite of knowing that a student is capable of more. I can only truly evaluate what I see. As a teacher, I see cursive handwriting as a much neater and more efficient tool to convey meaning.

Students who cannot write fluently and legibly are at a disadvantage in the middle grades; they cannot keep up when taking notes, homework takes longer, and often they are embarrassed when submitted work looks like that of a younger child. It is not so important that students write using cursive--but rather, they have a legible, easy-to-read script and they must be able to write with ease. There are strategies to help students with their handwriting. Unfortunately, many middle-grade teachers do not know how to assist students who struggle with handwriting. For example, encouraging students to hold their paper with their "free hand" helps fluency; if words are off the line the student is very likely to be holding the pencil too close to the point and as they write they cannot see the line.

To help students improve their writing, I often start with size and have them "scale it down." Step two is to encourage students to close the wide gap between words. Third, student's general formatting is checked: margins, skipping spaces and using "white space" to provide organization, and correcting letters that are formed incorrectly.

Why do I prefer instructing in cursive? I have to choose either manuscript or cursive to perfect letter form and cursive is easier for me to instruct. Often, students' manuscript (e.g., printing)is not clear, and many letters are not formed correctly.

We error when we interpret letters for students and accept incorrect spelling when words are misformed(e.g., accepting an "o" for an "a" . . .because that was what he meant to write). We must require students to be responsible for the lettering they use.

Raise expectations; there are only 26 letters to the alphabet! Students can do this! Expect them to write using correct size and to leave appropriate spacing between words. Do not accept rushed, messy writing that shows rushed thinking effort.

The pencil-approach is alive and well during the academic day. Students often must pick up the pencil to write notes, write in workbooks, write reflections, brainstorm ideas, write requests, make charts. It is faulty thinking to consider handwriting to be unimportant because of future technology maybe's.

We must make the tools of handwriting legibility, and handwriting fluency, available to students.

Middle grade students who struggle with handwriting often do not realize there are different types of writing; there is writing that is slower paced for papers to be submitted, and there is writing that is faster paced for notetaking or for personal jotting of ideas.

Students who have not developed reasonable writing speed and legibility are at a disadvantage and often cannot keep up with classroom demands.

More attention should be given to help students who struggle with handwriting legibility and fluency. As I look at the samples of handwriting of those students in my school who are at-risk for failing this year,it seems a red flag that has been ignored for too long.

Clear rapid handwriting will probably matter for a long, long time (at least as long as computers exist and can lose their power in hurricanes ... )

Research shows, however, that the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive. They join some, not all, of the letters -- making just the easiest joins, and skipping the rest -- and use print-like rather than cursive-style forms for those letters that "disagree" between printing and cursive.

Since learning to read cursive takes an hour or less (I've taught five-year-olds to do it), and learning to write cursive takes a year or more, I do recommend that students learn how to read cursive for the sake of those who still write in cursive. But why require students to write in a style that the fastest and clearest handwriters avoid?


Kate Gladstone
handwriting instruction and remediation specialist
Founder, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
Director, the World Handwriting Contest
http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

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