Back to the Basics of a Legible Hand
The New York Times, Jan 19, 2005
by Samuel Freedman
BEL AIR, Md - For 12 years after retiring from the faculty of Harford Day School in this Baltimore suburb, Nan Jay Barchowsky had happily pursued her unquiet version of dotage. She wrote a textbook, designed a typeface, spent time on her pottery and watercolors. Then, in the person of the Harford headmistress, duty called.
So Ms. Barchowsky found herself the other morning standing before a class of eighth graders, talking about posture and grip, dictating sentences about "greedy green gremlins" and "reverent corruptible reprobates," and trying within the constraints of 25 minutes to teach these teenage pupils a skill most barely possessed -- the ability to write clearly and rapidly in script.
Behind their cowlicks and braces, these adolescents already knew Latin and Greek roots. They understood the modified predicate and compound appositive. They wrote research papers on topics like the role of friends, counselors and confidantes in "Romeo and Juliet." Yet even in a private school with a healthy respect for traditional pedagogy, one of the "3 R's" had gone missing in the high-tech age.
When Ms. Barchowsky asked the dozen students to start writing, all but two instinctively went to print. Kelsey Niemeyer had a typical story. She had learned script in second or third grade, but in middle school her teacher stopped requiring her to use it, and so, like an unused muscle, the ability atrophied. The other week, when Kelsey's mother asked her to write a thank-you note, and to do it cursively so it looked grown-up, Kelsey realized she could no longer remember how to form many letters.
There is nothing so unique, so peculiar about Kelsey's situation or Harford Day School's. Both bear testimony to the diminishing importance of handwriting instruction and quality in American schools. Nobody ever issued an edict on the subject, although state standards for handwriting's role in the curriculum tend to be vague and easily ignored. This trend took hold more as a result of indirect decisions and unexamined premises.
At one end of the educational spectrum, the emphasis on standardized testing and basic skills has led elementary schools to double the class time devoted to math and language arts, crowding out penmanship along with art, music, science and other supposedly ancillary subjects. On the other flank, the "whole language" method of teaching literacy, with its emphasis on creative expression and critical thinking, has diminished instruction in phonics, spelling and grammar, among other traditional skills. Straddling the philosophical divide is the assumption that somehow, magically, every pupil, rich or poor, will have a computer available at all times.
As for the cumulative result, a recent national survey of teachers in grades 1 through 3 by Prof. Steve Graham of Vanderbilt University found that while most said they did teach handwriting, a vast majority admitted that they had no training in the subject, had no curricular materials for it and, for good measure, didn't enjoy it. Zaner-Bloser, an educational publishing company known for its handwriting books, saw its business drop steadily from the early 1970's until the mid-1990's, said Richard Northup, a vice president.
Even now, when those sales are gradually improving, teachers insist on lessons that require no more than 15 or 20 minutes a day, the tiny slice of time they have available for the subject, Mr. Northup said. Only a few colleges and universities -- Brigham Young, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa -- put much emphasis on handwriting in teacher-education courses.
A skeptic might fairly ask why this matters. Professor Graham's study of elementary school pupils indicated a link between their difficulty in handwriting and weaknesses in the grammar and content of their compositions. One reason, quite simply, is that a brain struggling to make a hand form letters does not devote enough attention to more advanced tasks.
In high school and college, any student without a 24/7 laptop cannot hope to keep accurate notes on a lecture course. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting specialist based in Albany, estimates that while a student needs to jot down 100 legible words a minute to follow a typical lecture, someone using print can manage only 30. "That's fine for class," she said, "if the class is first grade."
Beyond the matter of speed, script remains a signifier of maturity, as Kelsey Niemeyer realized, and legibility matters on doctor's charts, job applications and absentee ballots, among other documents. As The Journal News in Westchester County recently reported, a judge disqualified ballots in a tightly contested State Senate race because he could not read the signatures.
NOTHING, though, supplied such a jolt to the handwriting cause as the advent of the new Scholastic Aptitude Test. In the version being introduced this March, each student must write a 25-minute essay. And that essay, unlike the answers to the SAT's multiple-choice questions, will be read and rated by two genuine human beings, as Nan Barchowsky was quick to remind a class at Harford Day School.
"Do you know anything about the SAT's?" she asked, and the hands of these ambitious children predictably rose. "The people who'll grade those essays won't have any time to decipher illegibility. Scary thought, isn't it?" She paused. "And you're probably going to be taking notes for the rest of your lives. I don't know anybody who works on a computer and doesn't also have a pad nearby."
Enlightened and perhaps alarmed, the students dutifully went through several of Ms. Barchowsky's exercises, some involving words and others slanting lines. They heeded her instruction about sitting upright, not leaning on an elbow, placing the pen between index and middle fingers. Then she harvested the papers so she could analyze strengths and weaknesses before the next week's lesson.
None of these methods differed greatly from what Ms. Barchowsky was doing later in the morning with a class of first graders. Something had happened to those 13-year-olds on the way to eighth grade; a fundamental skill had been lost to disuse and disregard. Now it was Ms. Barchowsky's job to roll back the calendar to 1998 or so and do it over, like an anthropologist teaching a tribe one of its own ancestral rituals.
"We don't do the glamorous makeover here," said Susan G. Harris, the headmistress. "We believe that skills and habits of the mind take years to develop. We just know that there aren't quick fixes. With handwriting or anything else, you need the firm foundation there. Once you learn to walk, you won't go back to crawling again."