Monday, June 20, 2011


Are you old enough to have had a class called penmanship? For me, second grade was that magic time when we set aside such childish things as printing in block letters and moved on to the much more adult style of writing (but still in pencil! ink wasn't allowed until high school!). Cursive was that amazing and magical way of writing that meant we were growing up.

But my kids didn't have that. My teenager had a class called "keyboarding." We called it "typing" in my day. My younger daughter will not have either class, although they did learn some cursive--a simplified, rather stripped down version--and something called "italics." (See article here: Op-Art: The Write Stuff)

Some studies show that learning penmanship, the art of correct handwriting, can improve students' education overall. Once upon a time, penmanship was important. Students worked hard and spent a good deal of time working on their hand, getting used to the tools of penmanship, learning the art of it. And it was indeed artwork. A beautiful flowing hand was an admired trait. How many times have you seen some old piece of handwriting and said, "I wish I could write like that!"

I have a book from 1872 called The Payson, Dunton, & Scribner Manual of Penmanship, published in New York and Chicago by Woolworth, Ainsworth, and Company. It is a manual, not for learning how to write beautifully, but for teaching students how to write beautifully. Interestingly, the first thing stressed is that the teacher should do all the work the students will be asked to do, and that he or she basically lead by example. It also teaches the future teacher of penmanship how to criticize. It give specific instructions for how to ask students questions and correct their work. I love this piece of advice: "It is not enough to discover the fault. They must know what to do to make the desired change." Words all teachers should live by!

Here are the parts of letters at the back of the book:
Yes, I wish I could write like that, but I honestly don't know how practical it would be. After all, who would know how to read it? But, teaching students how to write by hand, neatly, legibly, and with a little flair is important. And we've apparently stopped doing that. Why?

Predictions of handwriting's demise didn't begin with the computer; they date back to the introduction of the Remington typewriter in 1873. But for at least a generation, penmanship has seemed a quaint and, well … schoolmarmish subject to be emphasizing. Now, backed by new research, educators are trying to wedge it back into the curriculum. After all, no one has suggested that the invention of the calculator means we don't have to teach kids how to add, and spelling is still a prized skill in the era of spell check. If we stop teaching penmanship, it will not only hasten the dreaded day when brides acknowledge wedding gifts by e-mail; the bigger danger is, they'll be composed even more poorly than they already are.
The above quote is from a Newsweek article from November 3, 2007, titled "The Writing on the Wall." According to the article, handwriting fluency has been found to be a building block of learning. Those who can physically write better, can not only demonstrate their skills better, but the act of expression is part of the learning process. After all, we've been writing by hand for an awfully long time. Typing, or keyboarding, has its place (I couldn't write to you now without it!), but so does handwriting. Just because we do one doesn't mean we don't have to do the other anymore. The common argument ties it to the calculator: Just because we can use a calculator to figure hard math does not preclude us from learning the technique behind the equation. It's two different things. Learning how to add is important, and it's a building block for a lot of stuff. So is learning how to build letters into words and words into sentences at the rhythm that our brain and hand work together.

And to close... my mother had an autograph book in 1940. I've always been fascinated by the little notes from family and friends in it, and also by the handwriting from so long ago. In 1940, my mother was in the seventh grade. Just look at this little gem, so beautifully written and with such flair... and written by a boy!
Who was John? I don't know. But doesn't he look interesting? I wonder if someone will see my handwriting one day, 70 years from now, and say, wow... I bet she was smart and interesting? I wonder if I will leave behind any handwriting at all...


  1. There is a very good book called Drawing From theR
    Right Side of the Brain. The author, Betty Edwards discusses handwriting in the last chapter. She also gives you some ideas on how to improve yours and of course it is as you guessed practice practice practice.

  2. I'll have to find that. Thanks for the tip! I find it such an interesting topic. Something so fundamental that is being lost? It doesn't seem right.

  3. It's not right. As an educator (taught 5th grade) I fought this losing battle for the last 15 years of my career. I made my kids use proper cursive as was thought to be old-fashioned and demanding for doing so.

  4. Yes. It's so sad that doing the right thing is so often considered old-fashioned and demanding. But, good on you for working so hard on those kids for so long. I have no doubt, even though it was frustrating, you DID make a difference!