Tuesday, August 18

Is handwriting really dead?

If handwriting is dead, I missed the funeral. I read an article by Claire Suddath published in the August 3 issue of TIME in which she declared that we are "witnessing the death of handwriting" (p. 48). Before I got too far in the article, I did a quick Google search, as one tends to do when encountering something that triggers the skepticism-meter.

Suddath asserts that cursive "started to lose its clout back in the 1920s" which came as a surprise to me. But then she talked more about handwriting so it occurred to me that perhaps cursive is perhaps on life support, but the necessity of handwriting seems to have a different place. Suddath states that 1990 was the "year of the great alphabet change" and that her class was "one of the last to learn the loops and squibbles" (p. 48). Wow. I missed that, too. Back to Google.

I'm old enough to remember practicing the Palmer method using that newsprint with the light blue lines that carefully demarcated where loops and tops and bottoms of letters should be. We practiced both printing and cursive. I don't use cursive any more except for my signature; I didn't get on board with the cool scribble style so I still have to write out my whole name for certain things. My handwriting has evolved, perhaps devolved, to a smooshed cursive/printing style ages ago. Somewhat surprisingly, I get compliments on my handwriting. But it is legible and I think that's what Suddath is really trying to emphasize; it's not so much that handwriting is dead or dying, but that there is less emphasis on teaching children to write legibly.

Lots of folks point to technology as the culprit. After all, typing on a laptop or a smartphone or in IM means I don't have to write by hand. Students may be taking more standardized tests, especially in earlier grades. I can't imagine that to be true, but I can imagine that teachers would find it harder and harder to find time to help students practice their handwriting.

Suddath included a puzzling observation by Linda Garcia, an elementary teacher who had taught Ms. Suddath. Garcia worries that eventually students will not be able to read cursive and I have to assume it's because they won't recognize it. I'm not sure about that, though. But Suddath also includes a statement by 15-year-old Alex McCarter who is allowed to use a computer for standardized tests because his handwriting is so bad. He's planning to keep his handwriting bad in spite of his mother's attempts to help him improve his penmanship.

Okay, so let me get back to my Google searches on the new alphabet of 1990 and cursive's loss of clout. A 2006 Washington Post article by Margaret Webb Pressler doesn't confirm Suddath's assertion about the disintegration of the importance of cursive in the 1920s, but does confirm my thinking that teachers have found it harder to include handwriting instruction and/or practice in their teaching time. There were also two other interesting points.

First, Jim Mohr, a history professor at the University of Oregon, has found that students appreciate handwritten documents. "There's a kind of personal authenticity to individual writing that's hard to capture any other way."

Second, it may be that handwriting contributes to certain cognitive skills. "The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one" (¶ 16). Steve Graham at Vanderbilt University did a study with a group of first-graders 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" (¶ 17).

Okay, so there is at least one good reason for kids to learn and to practice at least some fundamental handwriting skills. Legibility is probably not optional, though. As for the so-called great alphabet change, I did find a few scholarly articles on the shift in handwriting instruction, so that confirmed my impression that Suddath wasn't quite sure what she was talking about and just wanted to write a piece about penmanship and handwriting and had a certain number of space she had to fill (and how did she get away with stating that the poor penmanship of physicians results in "thousands of deaths a year" without offering an iota of support?). None of the articles made it seem like handwriting was dead or even in danger of imminent death. I did find a 1998 article about the important relationship between handwriting and cognitive skills, and a presentation that suggests that having kids learn basics of handwriting will make a difference with their fine motor skills.

So I don't think handwriting is dead. I'm not even sure it's mostly dead. Cursive might be, but I'm not going to mourn its passing. We may need Miracle Max to help change our perceptions about the importance of handwriting and we may need to work a bit harder to convince the digikids that writing has some value, but handwriting seems to be with us for a little while longer.

No comments: