Everyone has terrible handwriting these days. My daughter and I set out to fix ours.
By Emily Yoffe

Posted Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009, at 4:40 PM ET


Click to see how Emily’s and her daughter’s handwriting improved.

If
you have school-age children, you may have noticed their handwriting is
terrible. They may communicate incessantly via written word—they can
text with their heads in a paper bag—but put a pen in their hands and
they can barely write a sentence in decent cursive. It’s not going to
be easy to decipher one either, if they think cursive might as well be
cuneiform.

My daughter is in the eighth grade, and I realized
several years ago that her rudimentary block-letter printing was
actually never going to improve because handwriting had been chopped
from the school curriculum. Children today learn basic printing in
first and second grade, then get cursory instruction in cursive in the
third grade—my daughter was given a cursive workbook and told to figure
it out herself. She dutifully filled in every page, but she never
understood how these looping letters were supposed to become her
handwriting, so they never did.

I was appalled that she seemed
stuck with this crude penmanship. After all, I had spent hours in Miss
Mackenzie’s fifth-grade class perfecting my Palmer-derived
hand. Surely part of being literate was having decent handwriting! But
I was hardly one to talk. As with the human body, over the decades
people’s cursive tends toward collapse. The loops become lumps and
eventually degenerate into illegibility. My script piled up on the
page, letters smashed against one another at different angles like a
series of derailments.

Miss Mackenzie is long gone, but I decided
to see if both my daughter and I could improve our handwriting. I was
hopeful for her but dubious about myself. At her age, she’s in the
neuron-growing business: Certainly she could master this basic skill.
But at my age, I assumed handwriting was one of those things that was
so fixed it couldn’t be fixed.

We went to the Maryland farmhouse home of Nan Jay Barchowsky, 79, who for almost 30 years has been a handwriting consultant with a line
of instructional materials she developed. A calligrapher and artist,
she started teaching handwriting at a local school, basing her letters
on italic script—the elegant, quick form developed in early-16th-century Italy.

Barchowsky
sat my daughter and me at a slanted writing desk and dictated a
paragraph for us to write. She then looked at our work and tried to be
diplomatic. She noted that my loops were too big and tended to get
tangled in the lines of writing above and below, the sizes of my
letters were inconsistent, they slanted in every direction, and certain
ones—like R—were illegible while others got omitted
altogether. She asked, "Do you ever go back and find you are unable to
read your notes?" Yes, all the time!

Barchowsky said my
daughter’s handwriting would look more sophisticated, and be both
faster and more legible, if her letter size was more regular and she
learned to create joins within her words. My daughter acknowledged her
frustration. "My handwriting makes me look so young," she complained.
"Also it’s so big that on tests and reports I can’t fit in what I want
to say."

This Washington Post article
describes the national abandonment of penmanship in recent decades.
Until the 1970s it was taught as a separate subject through sixth
grade. Children in mid-20thcentury America spent two hours a
week on it. Today the teaching of it generally ceases after third
grade, and a 2003 survey found that during the years it’s taught, it’s
for 10 minutes or less a day. In a letter to the editor in response, a
Princeton University student, Michael Medeiros, wrote that it made
sense to ditch this "obsolete" subject. He reported he had "not had to
read or write cursive in seven years." Young people like him are voting
with their fingers. The SATs began requiring a written essay in 2005,
but only about 15 percent of the test takers use cursive; everyone one
else prints.

Medeiros has a point. Things that we think are
eternal and necessary may just be things that happened to us. In her
recent book, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting,
Kitty Burns Florey reports that in Colonial America, literacy was
valued because it allowed people to read the Bible. Writing was
considered a separate skill, one mastered almost exclusively by men of
the elite. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that an elementary school education—and lessons in handwriting—became universal.

Back then handwriting instruction was simply in the cursive (the word is derived from Latin for running)
style of the day. But in the 1920s it was believed that teaching young
children to print letters would be physically easier for them to master
and that this writing would more closely resemble the typeface of
books. So the manuscript style we all learned, known as "ball and
stick," was developed. This is the cause of nearly a century of
distress, according to handwriting reformers,
because the fine motor habits required for cursive writing are a
different set from those required for printing. Children had to learn
to write twice.

The beauty of Barchowsky’s method—besides that
the writing is lovely to look at—is that it has to be taught only once.
There is no switch-over from print to cursive. Instead, after primary
grade students learn the written alphabet, they are taught to join the
letters from the start. Unlike Palmer-style cursive, in which every
letter is joined to another in a series of endless curves and loops,
italic joins only some. That makes it a far more natural way of
writing. After all, most adults eventually create their own
idiosyncratic print-cursive mashup.

When Barchowsky, slender and
energetic, describes traditional Palmer-style cursive, she can hardly
contain her disdain. Palmer-method penmanship was the brainchild of
A.N. Palmer, a "penman" born in 1860 who wanted to strip down the more
elaborate writing style of the day. (It was known as Spencerian, after
another American handwriting entrepreneur, Platt Rogers Spencer. His
pleasing script lives on in the Coca-Cola logo.) By the early 20th
century, Palmer’s alphabet and instruction methods went viral. When he
died in 1927, Florey writes, three-quarters of American schoolchildren
were using his method. (His company went bankrupt in 1987.)

But
to Barchowsky, his legacy is a kind of virus, infecting the handwriting
of generations. According to "italicists" like Barchowsky, the
mechanics of Palmer are all wrong. Printing and italic both emphasize
the downstroke of each letter, but Palmer-style handwriting emphasizes the upstroke. She says the shapes of the letters themselves are a problem. Writing e‘s like they’re the squiggles on a Hostess cupcake leads to confusion between e, l, i, and r. Lowercase h, m, n, r, u, v, and w often look alike. Palmer-style br looks like lr, and d looks like cl. Then there’s aesthetics—Barchowsky would like to rid the world of all those unnecessary, misshapen loops.

We brought home Barchowsky’s program for improving existing handwriting called Fix It … Write. Each lesson begins with warm-up exercises. These are patterns that look like vvvvv or wwwww or mmmmm,
to get our muscles familiar with the basic shapes of many letters and
give a crucial sense of rhythm. Each lesson lasts no more than 10 or 15
minutes. Barchowsky believes the long practice sessions of old-time
handwriting instruction only frustrate students.

I learned from Florey that the Egyptians used a wavelike symbol for water that the Phoenicians adapted and called mem—thus the letter M. I loved the soothing mindlessness of the exercises, particularly seeing the mmmm‘s break across the page—a tiny, rolling sea.

A
few letters are introduced in each lesson, followed by putting them
together in words, with the emphasis on what does and doesn’t join. The
key to Barchowsky’s italic is the built-in breaks between letters,
which vastly increases legibility. Take, for example, her practice
sentence, Tim’s mama raps a purple pan. In the word Tim the T stands alone, while the i and m are joined. Mama is completely joined, while for purple the purp is joined, and so is the le,
but there is a break between the two segments. Although it might seem
that the tiny lifts of the hand between writing some letters would slow
you down, it’s actually more instinctive than trying to control the
runaway joins of conventional cursive.

From the start, my
daughter’s workbook showed dramatic improvement in her penmanship, but
her homework lagged. It turns out she thought this new handwriting
should be saved for something special and wasn’t practical for every
day. I convinced her having everyday handwriting that looked special
was the whole point.

Each evening (OK, each evening we got to
it), my daughter and I sat side by side doing our warm-ups and writing
our practice sentences. The italic alphabet started to feel more
effortless. My grocery lists were becoming legible. When I wrote checks
I no longer worried about having to void them because of unreadability.
I even decided to make my signature more pleasing, which backfired the
day I was unable to transfer money to my Keogh account because my
signature didn’t match the one on file. But still, when my writing was
under pressure—taking notes during an interview, for example—it would
revert to my usual messy scrawl. It was a struggle to keep conscious
track of the look of my handwriting while trying to keep up with my
note-taking.

This project also brought up the question of whether
the Princeton student was right—that we were spending time on an
archaic skill no one cares about anymore. Besides interview notes, I
typed almost everything else I wrote. My daughter did most of her
homework on the computer. On the worksheets and tests she had to write
by hand, no teacher had complained about her sloppy penmanship.

In
the sliver of academia that studies handwriting, there’s a debate about
its actual value. Everyone agrees students need to learn handwriting,
and that a clear, fast legible hand is preferable to the opposite. But
Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the
University of Washington, asserts
that handwriting has a value beyond its basic utilitarian one. She says
the physical process of making letters by hand more powerfully embeds
written-language-making skills in children’s brains than pressing keys.

Her argument has an intrinsic appeal. We mourn (and also
celebrate) every time a new technology displaces an artisan’s skill.
But Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University who
has worked with Berninger, says the actual evidence in favor of
handwriting is weak. He says that if we really wanted to improve
children’s language skills, we would place enough computers in
classrooms so that there was a keyboard at every desk. Sure, he says,
kids need a basic ability to handwrite letters, but for fluency with
the written word the keyboard is far superior. Children can easily
correct mistakes and move text, and when they print out their work it’s
guaranteed to look good. "It’s more motivating," says Graham.

Still,
my daughter and I found the motivation to continue Barchowsky’s
program. Slowly over the 10 weeks it took us, the improvements started
to become part of our unconscious handwriting. True, no bride would
hire us to address her wedding invitations, but by the end we were both
astonished at our progress. My daughter said, "I was embarrassed by my
old handwriting; now I’m not. I used to hate it in class if I couldn’t
use the computer because my writing was such a scribble."

I no
longer produce a jumble that makes me cringe, but Miss Mackenzie
drilled me so well that I have found it almost impossible to completely
eradicate my loops. The letter L is the H1N1 of my handwriting; just when I think I have the loop scourge under control, a new outbreak appears.

Both
my daughter and I agreed that to really get attractive handwriting, we
should do the Barchowsky class over again. We talk about it from time
to time. But we realize that it would take the kind of energy you find
in a quick brown fox. We’re just a couple of lazy dogs.

Emily Yoffe is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner. You can send your Human Guinea Pig suggestions or comments to emilyyoffe@hotmail.com.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2227680/


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