Saturday, January 24, 2009

Handwritten: Still a Good Thing

January 23 was National Handwriting Day (and John Hancock's birthday). Kitty Burns Florey noted handwriting's decline, and wondered if it was that big a deal.

With the exception of the odd thank-you note or letter from Aunt Gertrude in Florida, we seldom see anything handwritten in our mailboxes. I suspect there are actually people alive today who have never received a letter written with a pen on paper and mailed in an envelope with a stamp.

When I stumbled on an article about how learning handwriting in school is being replaced by keyboarding instruction, my first reaction was the predictable horror of someone who spent large portions of her youth mastering Palmer Method under the tutelage of the nuns. Keyboarding? Who even knew that was a verb? No more Palmer Method? All those loopy L’s and fancy G’s–gone to the dustbin along with the blotter and the inkwell? I decided to write a book about it ("Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting"). And I resolved to remain open-minded. If handwriting is over, is that really so terrible?

The answer is that handwriting is still being kept alive, for a number of reasons.

Educators I talked to claim that kids master reading more easily when they write a word as they learn it: the writing process keeps their attention focused as they match symbol to sound.....Kids certainly need to learn to type on a keyboard, but they also need legible handwriting–for taking tests, writing reports, working at the chalkboard. Many schools have adopted some version of technology for these tasks, but far more haven’t the resources for it. Children are judged by their handwriting; if they produce indecipherable chicken-scratching, a teacher will not be sympathetic. And if writing hasn’t become easy and automatic, they’ll lose their train of thought, be unable to plan ahead as they write, and, in the end, dislike both aspects of the writing process: forming their letters and expressing their ideas.

My handwriting has always been terrible. Scratch that (heh) - when I first learned writing I was pretty good for my age. Maybe it went to my head, because I don't think I improved much. My daughter, on the other hand, has always had great handwriting; all through school her teachers commented that her rough drafts look better than most finished products. Her trouble has been that she obsesses about it so much that it slows her down. Only recently has she learned to lighten up for speed when needed.