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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)

There are those who say the culture is at a crossroads, turning permanently from the written word to the typed one. If handwriting becomes a lost form of communication, does it matter?

It was at U-Va. that researchers recently discovered a previously unknown poem by Robert Frost, written in his signature script. Handwritten documents are more valuable to researchers, historians say, because their authenticity can be confirmed. Students also find them more intriguing.

"They feel closer to that person as an actual human, that somebody actually wrote that just like me," said Jim Mohr, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Oregon at Eugene, who wrote a book on diaries from the Civil War. "There's a kind of personal authenticity to individual writing that's hard to capture any other way."

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.

In a recent daily exercise, the second-graders at Yorktown Elementary School in Bowie carefully formed letters on individual chalkboards -- first with a wet sponge, then with a tissue, then in chalk and finally in pencil in a workbook. In the future, these kids will produce far more legible letters than kids without this kind of specialized instruction, said Lynne Maydag, the school's handwriting coordinator.

There are always going to be some kids who struggle with handwriting because of their particular neurological wiring, learning issues or poor fine motor skills, teachers said in interviews. For those kids in particular, the growing dominance of typing is liberating because they can write without stumbling over letter formation. Educators often point to this factor in support of keyboarding.

Paragamian, the St. Albans sophomore, was never great at handwriting, and says he can barely read or write cursive even now.

It doesn't bother him. "These days it doesn't matter," he said, "because any important thing you turn in is typed."

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