October 11, 2006


Just this morning I was listening to a CBC radio story (scroll down to "Feature Story from Wednesday's Show") about one public school in Edmonton where the students in the Grade 5/6 class "are using laptop computers at their desks all day" (oh my stars) and taking them home at night, too. In an audio snippet, one teacher is overheard telling the class to "write down everything you know about Canada". Oh my double stars. At the end of the story, the reporter natters on about how the laptops help reluctant writers, especially the boys.

And then making the rounds through my homeschool groups later in the morning, I found the same article popping up everywhere: today's Washington Post story "The Handwriting Is on the Wall: Researchers See a Downside as Keyboards Replace Pens in Schools" (all emphases mine):
The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it's threatening to finish off longhand.

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.

And those college hopefuls are just the first edge of a wave of U.S. students who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades, frequently 10 minutes a day or less. As a result, more and more students struggle to read and write cursive.

Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say. But academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it's important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades.

Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy. ...

At Keene Mill Elementary in Springfield, Debbie Mattocks teaches cursive once a week to her gifted-and-talented group of third-graders -- mainly so they can read it. All their poems and stories are typed. Children in Fairfax County schools are taught keyboarding beginning in kindergarten.

"I can't think of any other place you need cursive as an adult other than to sign your name," she said. "Cursive -- that is so low on the priority list, we really could care less. We are much more concerned that these kids pass their SOLs [standardized tests], and that doesn't require a bit of cursive." ...

The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better -- a lifelong benefit. Children who don't learn correct technique find it harder to write by hand, so they avoid it. Schools that do teach handwriting often stop after third grade -- right after kids learn cursive. By the time computers are more widely used in classrooms for writing, perhaps in fourth or fifth grade, many children already have decided they don't like to write.

In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.

But Graham worries that students who remain printers, rather than writing in cursive, need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT. Teachers may say they don't deduct for bad handwriting in class, but research tells another story, he said.

When adults are given the same composition written in good handwriting and poor handwriting, "they still give lower grades for ideation and quality of writing if the text is less legible," he said.

Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, according to the College Board.

It doesn't take much to teach better handwriting skills. At some schools in Prince George's County, elementary school students use a program called Handwriting Without Tears for 15 minutes a day. They learn the correct formation of manuscript letters through second grade, and cursive letters in third grade.
This article is a variation on one in The Calgary Herald a few years ago about the decline in penmanship education, coincidentally published on last day of the first homeschooling convention and trade show Tom and I attended, where we watched hordes of home educating parents head out the door under mounds and mountains of books and other curricula, including Handwriting Without Tears material. That article mentioned that while some Canadian public schools were solving the fairly simple problem of poor handwriting by throwing laptops at children -- a rather expensive and not particularly permanent solution -- more than a few parents, concerned that Johnny might not be making enough at MacDonald's after graduation to afford his own laptop and share his written thoughts clearly and effectively, are hiring independent physical therapy consultants to teach Johnny to write, from how to hold a pencil to how to form each letter. After all, those hands and fingers will be dangling from those wrists for a lifetime.

While most of the teachers interviewed for that article made dismissive comments about "drill and kill" and rote practice and spoke glowingly of the 21st century and embracing new technologies, all of the consultants echoed the last paragraph quoted from the WP article, that "it doesn't take much" to teach proper penmanship, just a program like Zaner-Bloser or Handwriting Without Tears and 15 to 30 minutes of practice a day. Magic. But not as sexy as laptops.


JoVE said...

I am increasingly of the opinion that the generation who are now parents still think computers, in and of themselves, involve really complicated skills and that it is important for children to master those skills early. The don't see that an ability to earn money working for Microsoft or whatever involves programming skills, skills your kids won't learn (and shouldn't learn) before they are teenagers. And that much of the use of computers that is being pushed on ever younger children is merely typing (or pointing at something you want and clicking), not a sophisticated skill, really, and something most of our generation didn't learn until at least high school.

For some reason they are in thrall to a technology that they never had as kids. Penmanship probably doesn't even require a formal program like those you suggest after the initial instruction phase. Kids just have to write regularly, which they do in school anyway.

and look at how our own handwriting declines when we use computers all the time! It doesn't take long to lose it.

Handwriting was on my list of advice for freshmen when I was a university prof (along with fruit and vegetables, and reading). I used to stress that their exam would be handwritten and there were 180 of them in the group, and if those of us marking their exams had to struggle to read their answers our inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt on the issues that really count would be greatly diminished.

Rebecca said...

I do require my kids to learn cursive because penmanship is important to me. My ten year old tries to get out of doing it but I show him how men in colonial times had such wonderful handwriting and glorious signatures. We made our own ink from black walnuts and quill pens from geese feathers (those dumb geese are everywhere in Ohio :) ) They thought that was fun. Hopefully, (someday) my kids will see the light and be glad they learned it.

Eileen said...

They are also creating more barriers that will prevent students from excelling in math, science, and engineering. I'm an engineer and in the latter part of high school and all through college a vast majority of the notes I took in class were equations and figures - which take much longer to type than to write. If these students are unable to write legibly and quickly they won't be able to do well.
I do write all of my homework in block lettering, but that's mostly to emphasise the variables which are always in cursive.

amy said...

I'm enjoying your blog - thanks. The "Handy Latin Phrases" link isn't working for me.

Becky said...

JoVE -- I didn't learn to type until senior year in high school, and after university I talked my way into at least one job by fudging on my computer skills (I was able to learn what I needed for the job in the first week). I think it's the teachers who are in thrall to the technology, as more proof that "only experts" can handle the subject material. But as you said, why do kids in Grade 2 need to make PowerPoint presentations or fifth graders record their weather observations in Excel? (Both current projects from our local ps).

I don't know how many kids are writing in school anymore. I tend to think they are probably tapping to each other on their cell phones more...

Rebecca -- Speaking of men in colonial times, my 9yod is enjoying "Handwriting by George" [Washington].

Eileen -- One more instance where I have to wonder whose side the teachers are on.

Amy -- Glad you're enjoying Farm School. Thanks for the reminder about the link. I found it wasn't working a few months ago (sniff...), and just replaced it with another. Not the original, but not bad.

Mother Crone's Homeschool said...

This is something that we have struggled with here, trying to buck the trend. We had opted for italic handwriting with my son, because that is the fastest, and what my cursive turned into when taking gads of notes in upper years.
With a dyslexic student, we did turn to typing early, as the physical act of writing was so inhibiting to the creative process. But, we have not abandoned it. As a sixth grader, she has now progressed enough in adaptations, and is learning cursive, albeit later than her friends. She does not want to miss out on the joy of the hand- written word. One thing I notice is that she has a more artistic taste at this point. Additionally, I write letters to her in cursive, so that she can practice reading it. We hope to even try Spencerian Penmanship at some point!

Becky said...

I've been considering the Spencerian Penmanship set since I first saw it in (I think) the Levenger catalogue, must be 15 years ago, way before marriage, kids, and hs'ing. I'm not much of a knitter, but I could be a crazy old lady in a shawl practicing Spencerian loops...

crissachappell said...

What scares me most.....is that nothing seems to matter (Who cares!) except passing a test (which has nothing to do with learning how to learn!)

Becky said...

Bang on, Crissa. Nothing to do with learning how to learn, or learning to love how to learn. And kids twig to this pretty quickly...