Some new twists in the art of minding one's P's, Q's

The Education Beat

Penmanship: Despite the dominance of computers in the classroom, for many children -- particularly those who attend religious schools -- handwriting is a serious part of the curriculum.

April 30, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE CAP ON the upper-case J is back. That's a good thing.

Opinion about the cursive capital Q is mixed, but no one likes the simplified upper-case M.

It's Thursday noon at the National Catholic Educational Association convention, and a group of teachers from St. John the Evangelist School in northern Baltimore County is discussing arcane details of handwriting over Caesar salad at a downtown hotel.

These teachers prove that handwriting lives, despite the computer juggernaut. Two children from their school have won Maryland championships this spring in the National Handwriting Contest.

First-grader Vincent Vendetti and sixth-grader Laura Strohmer aren't among the eight national finalists announced Thursday by Zaner-Bloser, the world's dominant publisher of handwriting textbooks, but having two of the four Maryland winners from the same school is a tribute to St. John. The contest is judged "blind," meaning that no schools are identified during the process.

The other two Maryland winners are Andrew Konetzni, a second-grader at St. Paul Lutheran School in Catonsville, and Matthew Gilbert, a third-grader at St. Mark School, also in Catonsville.

It was no accident that Zaner-Bloser chose a meeting of Catholic educators to announce the national finalists. Catholic-school children won three of the eight national awards, and pupils from Christian academies in California and Michigan won two others.

These schools take their handwriting seriously. When Zaner-Bloser changes the rules, it's equivalent to a change in the Major League Baseball strike zone, and the subject of considerable debate among handwriting experts.

The former capital Q in cursive writing resembled a 2, and in 1996 Zaner-Bloser changed it to an oval with a tail "after the post office got on us," says Richard M. Northup, the company's marketing vice president. The U.S. Postal Service's automated scanners were reading the Q's as 2's when written by people trained in the Zaner-Bloser method.

Zaner-Bloser also recently simplified several capital letters in cursive writing, eliminating the closed curl in the upper-case M, for example, and the two curls in the upper-case X.

The St. John teachers, traditionalists to the core, liked none of this, but they welcomed the return of the horizontal cap on the capital J in the "manuscript," or print, alphabet. Most schools teach manuscript writing in kindergarten and first grade, when children are learning to read, because the manuscript alphabet more closely resembles printed letters.

"Children are learning the sounds the letters make at those early ages," says Bob Page, the Zaner-Bloser president. "They need to understand what the letters look like as they learn the sounds they make."

From the third grade up, though, it's all cursive, and Zaner-Bloser, in consultation with a panel of teachers, essentially is the national arbiter of the shape of handwritten letters.

"Handwriting is a sophisticated skill," says Page, who traveled from company headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, to greet national winners and practice a little salesmanship. "It helps in reading and spelling, and despite the computer, it's far from dead as a school subject."

In fact, Page says, handwriting has gotten a boost in recent years from such statewide tests as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). About half the states now administer such assessments, and the hundreds of thousands of students who take them aren't doing so on keyboards. MSPAP requires a lot of writing in all the subjects tested.

"We were getting complaints that the scorers on statewide assessments couldn't read the tests," says Page. "A lot of public schools are coming back to handwriting for that reason."

At St. John the Evangelist, in a rural setting in Hydes, handwriting is practiced daily and graded. "There's a direct relationship between the quality of the handwriting and the quality of the spelling," observes JoAnn Bozman, a 24-year veteran and Vincent Vendetti's teacher.

Still, the Catholic teachers fear that the skill of handwriting is becoming extinct.

"I'm afraid it's a lost art in an era of so many electronic things," says Rosemarie Grier, a seventh-grade teacher at St. John. "Writing by hand is so much different from writing on a computer. You remember it longer. On a computer, it can be gone in a few minutes; just press a couple of keys and forget it. Besides, we teachers don't always know who wrote it on a computer."

There's something oddly comforting about hearing a group of teachers discuss the shape of the cursive Q. And in hearing that Clinton Hackney, Zaner-Bloser's "master penman," will choose the "grand national handwriting champion" from among the eight finalists announced Thursday. More than 100,000 children entered the contest nationally. Northup says Maryland and Pennsylvania have the highest participation.

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