Vanishing Letters

In this digital age, teachers and parents worry about the decline of penmanship

April 03, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Stuck at home one snowy afternoon a few weeks ago, Talia Sheridan, a Mount Washington homemaker, found herself leafing through some old notebooks kept by her son, Chris, when he was in elementary school. Delighted by Chris' carefully formed letters, Sheridan recalled, "he had a teacher then who thought penmanship was terribly important. She was even fussy about where he put the tail on an a."

Making such memories slightly bittersweet, however, was a realization that her son's letters were no longer given such careful attention. According to Sheridan, Chris, who is now 15 and a ninth-grader at a private school, cares about expressing himself well, and is even mindful of spelling and punctuation. Yet, his handwriting hasn't kept pace with his compositional skills.

"I asked him about it, and Chris said he has to write so fast when he's taking notes that he can't pay attention to the way his writing looks," Sheridan said. Her voice then became wistful. "His handwriting is legible. I can read it. But, it's not the beautiful penmanship he had when he was 6. I don't know what happened."

Many parents and educators across America are asking the same question: What has happened to our children's handwriting skills?

Some take a sanguine view. In the digital age, they say, words are made to be "processed." The keyboard renders the pen obsolete, and fine penmanship is quickly becoming a skill similar to playing the piano or baking a cake from scratch. Nice, yes, but not strictly necessary. Others believe sloppy handwriting represents a crisis in education. Seeing corollaries between legibility and literacy, they claim proficiency in penmanship is an important component in developing a child's self-esteem, as well as an early indicator of his or her future academic performance.

Part of new SAT

A main cause for such hand-wringing over handwriting is that the SAT for the first time includes a mandatory essay-writing component in addition to multiple-choice answers. The new SAT, which made its national debut March 12, asks students to compose a response, written in longhand, to a question such as "What is your view on the idea that it takes failure to achieve success?" While the essay section is not designed to test penmanship, experts agree handwriting may, nonetheless, affect its grading in at least two ways.

First, the readers scoring each essay will not have actual SAT tests in front of them. Instead, exams will be scanned and sent electronically. So, like a photocopy of a photocopy, legibility of the original document is key. Secondly, and more intangibly, is how the quality of a child's handwriting - or lack thereof - may affect how his or her thoughts are assessed by those who judge the SATs.

"We have great faith that things will go smoothly," said Chiara Coletti, vice president of public affairs for the College Board, which administers the SAT. "We have a long history of dealing with penmanship, and our most seasoned readers say that haven't yet found a handwriting they couldn't decipher."

Steve Graham, a professor of education at Nashville's Vanderbilt University, disagrees.

"Like it or not, we form judgments based on people's handwriting, and there is a perception of intelligence based on your transcription skills," he said. "So, even if you tell the reader to ignore handwriting, I believe the less legible essay may get a lower score. Readers will say they are judging just on ideas, but if you have a kid on the cusp, penmanship could make a difference."

"I actually think this is a good thing," Graham continued. "In the current educational climate, with all the emphasis being placed on just reading and math, one of the places getting shortchanged is penmanship. The new SAT tests will force people to pay more attention to this."

While still a professor of education at the University of Maryland College Park - a post he held until a few months ago - Graham conducted a study of 200 randomly selected primary school teachers across the United States. He found that four out of five respondents said they did not feel adequately prepared to teach penmanship, nor did they enjoy giving instructions on this particular subject. "A red flag" is how Graham describes these disturbing statistics.

Ability to communicate

Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, said: "In our society right now, we are not paying enough attention to handwriting. If a person's speech were unintelligible, we would be very concerned about their inability to communicate. Speech isn't a motor skill. When people talk, they are accessing language. Handwriting is not just a motor skill, either. It is language created by the hands."

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