Penmanship not a lost art

Handwriting: Despite predictions that keyboards will replace the pen, schools and writing classes thrive.

August 07, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Late last school year, Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School Principal Sue Webster had to mail a round of "positive postcards," notes of encouragement to acknowledge children for doing good work.

A colleague suggested she simply type them on the computer. But Webster buckled down and wrote them -- 65 in all -- in her best handwriting. Her fingers ached.

"I couldn't do it," Webster said of the computer idea. "It does give a personal message when you get something written by hand."

In this age of e-mail and fast-paced computer correspondence, handwriting seems almost an outdated notion. But more than 100 years after Charles Remington predicted that his company's typewriters would replace the pen, rumors of the death of handwritten correspondence continue to be greatly exaggerated.

Though teachers don't spend hours on the subject as in eras past, schools still fret over the best methods to teach children how to write. Across the country, a select group of handwriting experts coaches children and adults on improving their penmanship. Publishers of handwriting texts report brisk business, and national handwriting contests are hardly hurting for contestants.

Last year, Webster's school formally adopted the D'Nealian handwriting method for its kindergarten through fifth-graders. Named for Donald Neal Thurber, the D'Nealian method was designed to make the transition from printing to cursive easier by including curled "monkey tails" instead of elaborate loops at the end of some letters.

The school made sure all the bulletin board letters were D'Nealian and held in-house workshops for teachers.

Kids are "doing so much on the keyboard. On the computer, you can correct things so easily," Webster said. "We still want to make sure we're encouraging them to use those muscles that would help them become better writers."

The state Department of Education leaves it up to Maryland's local school districts to choose an appropriate handwriting method for elementary schools, and methods differ. Baltimore County's elementary schools adopted a simplified version of what is called the Zaner-Bloser method two years ago. In Howard County, schools can choose between Zaner-Bloser and D'Nealian.

Connie Loynachan, senior handwriting editor at the Columbus, Ohio-based Zaner-Bloser Inc. -- one of the largest handwriting curriculum publishers in the United States -- said various state writing assessment tests have helped to reawaken schools' interest in handwriting.

"We're finding that more and more schools are going back to teaching handwriting," Loynachan said. "Our sales have been up."

With the Parker Pen Co., Zaner-Bloser sponsors the National Handwriting Contest every March. After the best candidates are culled from each grade level, their work is sent to Zaner-Bloser's "master penman" for final judging.

"We get some excellent ones," she said. "It's really great to see, especially when you see boys win."

And self-described "handwriting repairwoman" Kate Gladstone has no shortage of students. She runs Handwriting Repair, an Albany, N.Y.-based business that helps people improve their handwriting skills.

"Every time I meet someone who says what I'm doing is archaic and outmoded, I point out two things," Gladstone said. "Every year since 1870, predictions have been made that handwriting would become obsolete. It simply has never happened.

"Number two, even if it were to happen, it would not necessarily happen for all of us in all circumstances in all walks of life."

Though people do an enormous amount of communication today using a keyboard, Gladstone and others say people still scribble quick notes to themselves, still dash off memos to the boss and still write grocery lists.

"There are times when you are going to have to write," Loynachan said. "Kids are always going out and their parents say, `Leave me a note.' I'm sure a computer is not real handy."

Handwriting enthusiasts like Gladstone aren't happy about the way many schools teach handwriting and lament the lack of training teachers receive in the subject.

"The tiny amount of time and training that we give would probably not suffice, even if we were teaching handwriting in the best possible way," she said. "Back in the good old days when this was taught, it took hours to teach."

Nan Barchowsky, an Aberdeen-based handwriting specialist and author of the book "A Manual for Fluent Handwriting," said teachers should understand how to develop a child's small motor skills to teach handwriting. Beauty in penmanship is not nearly as important as legibility and speed, she added.

"Children, if they're taught handwriting well, really do enjoy it tremendously," Barchowsky said.

Like many adults, Joan Orcutt of Glenelg has unsettling memories of childhood handwriting drills. Penmanship was a major focus at the Catholic school she attended.

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