November 7, 2007

The Writing on the Wall

Good penmanship is more than just a quaint skill. A new study shows that it's a key part of learning.

________________NEWSWEEK, November 12, 2007

I know a number of adults with beautiful handwriting, all my age or older, and an equal number of adults who either never learned cursive or are more comfortable "printing." All of those are younger than I am. We who were in 2nd and 3rd grade in the mid-60s were the last ones to be taught penmanship rigorously.

I learned cursive with the Peterson Direct Instruction.* The letters themselves are the same as the familiar Palmer cursive alphabet which hangs above most classroom blackboards today. Peterson was revolutionary at the time because of the method of teaching it. In 2nd grade we learned "slant print," to prepare us for the exact approved angle of Peterson cursive. In 3rd grade, we spent one half-hour daily learning the strokes. I have vivid recollections of pages covered with eggs and sticks and the chant, "Round, round, ready write!" as we made ovals in the air. We continued the exercises and were graded on "penmanship" until leaving for 7th grade and junior high.

I confess to some resentment about this. Peterson was a fascist regime. It was not a matter of writing legibly or beautifully or fluidly. The only acceptable handwriting was the exact Peterson model. Woe betide any left-handed student or anyone whose writing did not slant to the exact prescribed angle!

The rigor of this training and my art background have left me with an appreciation of attractive, readable handwriting. Although my own writing slopes unacceptably to the left and the descenders in the f, y, g and p have gotten inappropriately wide over the years, my lower-case letters are still unmistakably Peterson.

Newsweek's article supports something I have known intuitively since elementary school: speed and fluidity are the key skills. Legibility is just a bonus. Or more practically, handwriting needs to be an automatic (left-brain) skill, freeing the mind (right-brain) to compose or take notes.

I have thought about this issue as both my boys struggled through the early years of elementary school. Jeff learned both manuscript and cursive using "Handwriting Without Tears." This method has gained popularity, rightfully, since it uses a simplified alphabet and the curriculum is based on the difficulty of the strokes. The first lesson is the "magic c," moving on to related letters such as o, a and g. Also, HWT cursive is straight up and down, not slanted, which is a great blessing for lefties like Jeff.

Hart was busy misbehaving during most of his elementary years. As a result, he never really had any handwriting training, and it shows. Watching him print his name is agonizing. Two years ago, I suggested that his occupational therapist focus solely on keyboarding skills, since it hardly pays to invest time in handwriting now.

Keyboard skills are recognized now as a basic, necessary skill, but frankly, everyone needs to know how to handwrite, too. Like a foreign language, it is easily learned before age ten, but beyond that, penmanship is a lost cause (and lost art).

*Interestingly enough, Peterson is now the handwriting curriculum of choice among Christian homeschoolers.

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