The Handwriting Is on the Wall

A winning handwriting sample, from 9-year-old Stacy George, in a competition sponsored by Zaner-Bloser Educational Publishers.
A winning handwriting sample, from 9-year-old Stacy George, in a competition sponsored by Zaner-Bloser Educational Publishers. (Zaner-bloser Educational Publishers)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

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.

"It's like so many other things in our society -- there's a sense of loss for what once was," said Laura B. Smolken, a professor of elementary education and early childhood development at the University of Virginia.

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."

Older students who never mastered handwriting say it doesn't affect their grades. "A lot of kids have just awful handwriting. . . . Teachers don't take off points for poor handwriting," said Matt Paragamian, a 10th-grader at St. Albans School in Northwest Washington. Many of his classmates take notes in class on their own laptops and do homework on computers.

Until the 1970s, penmanship was a separate daily lesson through sixth grade, said Dennis Williams, national product manager for Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, the most widely used penmanship curriculum. At its peak in the 1940s and '50s, most teachers insisted on as much as two hours a week, but a 2003 Vanderbilt University survey of primary-grade teachers found that most now spend 10 minutes a day or less on the subject. To adapt to this new reality, the Zaner-Bloser method has been changed to a 15-minute daily plan.

In Montgomery County, schools "don't have separate handwriting instruction for handwriting's sake," said spokesman Brian Edwards. Only a handful of schools in Prince George's County teach handwriting. Fairfax educators struggle to include penmanship.

"It is hard to fit it in," said Pat Fege, the county's language arts coordinator. The goal now is only to produce legible handwriting, Fege said. "It's just not the vehicle it once was."

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