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Remember Penmanship? That's So 20th Century

Computers and more pressing subjects bump handwriting lessons. But a new form is emerging.

January 30, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Sixth-graders in Linda Op de Beeck's classroom at Barton Elementary School in Anaheim must complete all their homework assignments on computers. The result, she says, is neater and easier to grade.

"That's the way to go in the 21st century," she said.

As such sentiments become widespread in the nation's elementary schools, less attention is paid to what was once a rite of passage: learning proper penmanship.

Educators say the days of primary school students hunched over desks and painstakingly copying rows of cursive letters are waning. There are many culprits: computers, a rejection of repetitive drills as a teaching tool, and government testing that determines a school's worth based on core subjects such as reading and math.

"Handwriting and cursive have been pushed aside," said Joe Mueller, principal of Litel Elementary School in Chino Hills. "When you have a student struggling and you have to pick an area to focus on, reading versus penmanship, reading [will prevail]. The plate is full."

Penmanship promoters lament that what the schools aren't teaching is being reflected in a society in which e-mail is pushing the handwritten word closer to extinction.

"It's a terrible loss," said Michael Sull, past president of the International Assn. of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting. "We lose much as a society when we lose the emphasis on teaching something that is a life skill and that is part of our humanity."

The heyday of penmanship instruction was in the 1910s and 1920s, when students were taught to practice shapes in unison as teachers shouted orders in military-like drills, said Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of "Handwriting in America" and a history professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

At the time, the discipline required to master penmanship was believed to build character and foster virtue, she said. Juvenile delinquents were forced to do rote drills in an effort to rehabilitate them. It was foisted upon new immigrants to help them assimilate.

The demise of penmanship instruction has been predicted ever since, the impetus often being the latest technological advance, such as the Dictaphone or the Xerox machine. Today, teachers say they can't devote much time to something that many see as a quaint throwback.

"Every minute of the day is taken. There is no downtime," said third-grade teacher Robin Merandi.

California's education standards require penmanship instruction. Students learn to print lower- and upper-case letters in kindergarten; in third grade, they learn to write legibly in cursive. But they're not tested on it.

Also, a soon-to-be-published nationwide survey of primary school teachers found about 90% had received little or no formal training in how to teach penmanship.

"They didn't feel they were prepared, or they had little training and it wasn't something they particularly liked to teach," said Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who has studied handwriting since 1979 and who conducted the survey.

Since many students never learn proper handwriting, some teachers in higher grades say they will accept any legible form of communication. In Barbara Ferges' sixth-grade classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School in Lawndale, she has given up requiring cursive on assignments.

"My requirement is 'Can I read it?' " she said.

But penmanship remains crucial to a student's success, Graham said. A prime example is the SAT's new timed essay section, which must be handwritten.

Though SAT graders are instructed not to let legibility influence how essays are scored, at least 10 studies have concluded that that's impossible, Graham said. A 1992 study of graders who had been so trained found that neatly written essays received the equivalent of a 2.5-point benefit on a 100-point scale. Among untrained graders, the advantage grew to more than four points.

"You say, 'I want you to rate this for quality and content and ignore the handwriting.' They can't do it," Graham said. "The compositions with poor legibility get lower ratings and the ones with more legibility get better grades, even though the content is the same."

The new SAT section is among the factors prompting a few suburban school districts to revive the emphasis on penmanship, according to Gisele Ragusa, a USC professor who studies language and literacy instruction.

The Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County is among them. Last fall, the district's elementary schools began using a new penmanship curriculum, Handwriting Without Tears, that's intended to be easier for students to master.

This is not your mother's penmanship course. Printed letters are not learned in alphabetical order but in groups of similarly formed letters. Cursive letters do not slant to the right, and most flourishes have been eliminated.

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