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Have Computers Forced Handwriting Out of the Picture?

Computers have demoted the second of the three Rs, some educators say. Instead of teaching the loops and swirls of cursive letters, teachers point students to the letter r on the keyboard. Not all educators and handwriting experts agree on whether or why handwriting skills might be declining, however. Some place the blame on teachers or school budgets or book publishers.


If computers had been common in 1776, what would John Hancock be known for? Hancock's name and signature are synonymous; he is recognized in history not only for his signature on the Declaration of Independence but also for what that large signature represents.

Although simply writing a prescription or scribbling on a check might not have the same significance as declaring an independent nation, many experts say that the act of handwriting -- and its importance -- is not as prominent today as it was just 20 years ago. The advent of the computer is often blamed for the demise of penmanship. Some experts believe teachers fight a losing battle with children who think keyboards might eventually replace their pencils.

Computers have demoted handwriting in today's school curricula. The characteristics of good cursive handwriting are consistent slant, correct letter formation, consistent spacing of letters and words, and general neatness all qualities that are becoming pass. Keyboarding skills are taught earlier and earlier in schools, and handwriting appears to slowly recede into the background.



Kathy Libby, a former teacher and an author, believes handwriting takes a back seat in classrooms. Although many people point to computers as the cause for the decline in penmanship, Libby believes the downward spiral started long before new communications technology became pervasive. She said it started in the 1960s, when a new generation of teachers, who had a different attitude toward penmanship, moved into classrooms.

"As a beginning primary teacher in the late 1960s, I witnessed a profound difference between the attitude and teaching methods of 'well-seasoned' teachers and the young ones, like myself, just beginning careers," Libby told Education World. "It was a time of diversity in the schools. As older teachers retired, expectations and skills of American students began to erode with the new breed of teachers and parents.

"Penmanship was an art!" Libby explained. "Precision and mastery were expected and attained by meeting a set standard." Students were expected to develop cursive that precisely imitated the letters posted on the chalkboard. All cursive was to be the same; individual styles were not acceptable. When classroom instruction became less structured, "it became acceptable for young students to develop their own individual style in lieu of learning a standard style," added Libby.

Libby said the current status of penmanship in many classrooms and districts is discouraging. Many teachers have poor penmanship to begin with, allowing a "do as I say and not as I do" scenario. "Many teachers are a product of the decline, and understandably have little concept of the old standard," Libby said.

In schools across the country, keyboarding has crept into lower and lower grades. Although students typically begin cursive in the second or third grade, in some districts, keyboarding begins as early as first grade.

"It is my personal experience that if students are not fluent [cursive writers] by the end of third grade, they will resort to manuscript in fourth grade if allowed. Few fourth-grade teachers currently teach cursive, leaving non-fluent third graders at risk," Libby said. She added that cursive is only randomly reinforced beyond third grade. "These students are at a disadvantage. There are too many times in life that [people need] handwriting ... to compromise to such an extent. A well-educated person needs both skills," she said.



That is not the case in Sally Klapper's class at John Thomas Dye School in Los Angeles. "Handwriting has progressed with the same fervor in our school as in the past. Keyboarding starts in the third grade in our school and is pretty well mastered at that age," she told Education World.

Klapper believes keyboarding and penmanship lessons can co-exist. Pupils should be able to master both skills simultaneously, she added.

Some people still wonder what would happen if the Internet some day crashed. How would people communicate then? For many, the answer is cursive handwriting. "Penmanship is a lifelong skill. If learned properly, it will be used for the rest of their life," Klapper said.



Georganna Harvey, a handwriting product manager at textbook publisher Zaner-Bloser, agrees with Klapper. "Today in schools, we are seeing a resurgence in handwriting because of standardized tests," Harvey told Education World. "Children are required to write, and part of the assessment of that test is legibility."

The focus on penmanship has been like a yo-yo through the years, added Harvey. She believes the peaks and valleys of recent years are because of school budgeting rather than computers. With technology purchases increasing school budgets nationwide, communities expect schools to direct children toward computers. However, added Harvey, "There is still not enough money to have one computer for every child, but there is enough money for pen and paper for every child."

Harvey explained that teachers should convey the importance of penmanship as a communication tool. She said there are many occasions in which writing is still essential. Writing adds that personal touch.

National companies such as Zaner-Bloser sponsor handwriting contests to stress the importance of neat, legible penmanship. Harvey believes children can improve their penmanship if teachers take just five minutes a day to reinforce it -- although practice should be an all-day affair.

"After the basics are taught, there should be reminders," Harvey explained. "Handwriting is still very important. It is a symbol of who they are as [people]. A child can gain a lot of self-esteem in handwriting. It can be an area in which children who might not do great in other academic areas can succeed."

Klapper said the answer to piquing student interest in handwriting is finding fun and interesting lesson plans that motivate children to want to write more. She tries to use word-letter association to create a fun environment in her classroom. "They beg for more fun writing assignments and bring in wonderful books using tongue twisters, poems, and other forms of writing experiences that continue to make these lessons meaningful," she said. Klapper's class might be the exception and not the rule though.



Suzanne Swadener, an occupational therapist and a presenter for Handwriting Without Tears, has seen a decline in penmanship during the past ten years. "I believe it became less important when the whole-language approach to reading and writing became the trend," she said. "Children were no longer taught handwriting skills ... most workbooks that implemented writing in some way use the instructions trace and write. This leaves children on their own to determine starting and stopping points of letters.

"I often hear, 'Since we so often use computers, what is the point of teaching penmanship?'" Swadener told Education World. "This tells me that many educators do not take handwriting seriously, and our schools and children's performances are showing the effects."

Swadener believes the emphasis on keyboarding has replaced handwriting in many schools. It has gotten to the point where the lack of attention to handwriting has become cyclical. Both Swadener and Libby said teachers often come into the profession with poor handwriting skills because it is not even emphasized in college courses.



According to Libby and Swadener, teachers are not the only ones to blame. Handwriting-book publishers provide inadequate tools for teachers to use. "A lack of teaching materials is very common throughout the country today," Libby said. "Perhaps large American educational publishers, those that provide expensive, beautiful, four-color practice books, ought to re-evaluate the quality of their materials. I observe that the amount of actual practice per page is reduced by colorful cute pictures, robbing attention and space from the goal of developing fluent cursive."

Swadener said keyboarding is not a bad thing, but it cannot meet the needs of letter formation or independence in producing written work. "It does not foster the tremendous sense of accomplishment that a child receives when another person can read his writing," she said.

"When a child is independent with writing, it opens a world of opportunity," Swadener added. "Remember, not every family in the country has a computer. I do believe that when [children are] not taught handwriting skills, they have lost a link in the world of language. I have seen children become so dependent on keyboards that their world shuts down if the computer shuts down."

Libby's answer to the dilemma is to delay keyboarding to provide more focus on penmanship in the lower grades. "Penmanship habits are set in the early years and rarely improve in the intermediate grades and beyond," she told Education World. "Students have years to develop keyboarding skills. Ideally, they will need both penmanship and keyboarding to be well prepared citizens for the 21st century."

The most powerful way of communicating the importance of handwriting is to model it, Libby added. To that end, she published an instructional workbook called Cursive Connections Series, which explains ways of improving penmanship. The thorough, straightforward practice method emphasizes letter connection and builds fluency, Libby said. "A teacher models letters before students practice. After a letter is introduced, the teacher writes examples of the letter, making intentional errors contrasted with quality letters. Students discuss the letter construction and evaluate orally as a class." Instruction should be done daily.

Swadener believes readiness skills need to be taught, which means that a child who is not be prepared mentally and physically to move from print to cursive should not be rushed to do so. She suggests that students should not become mired in the trace and write method. Space and time should be provided for them to become engulfed in connecting letters and other such characteristics of cursive writing.

Ryan Francis
Education World®
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Updated 06/26/2008