Why Your Kids Have Such Terrible Handwriting and What To Do About It

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Sept. 10 2009 4:40 PM

Dead Letters

Everyone has terrible handwriting these days. My daughter and I set out to fix ours.

(Continued from Page 1)

But to Barchowsky, his legacy is a kind of virus, infecting the handwriting of generations. According to "italicists" like Barchowsky, the mechanics of Palmer are all wrong. Printing and italic both emphasize the downstroke of each letter, but Palmer-style handwriting emphasizes the upstroke. She says the shapes of the letters themselves are a problem. Writing e's like they're the squiggles on a Hostess cupcake leads to confusion between e, l, i, and r. Lowercase h, m, n, r, u, v, and w often look alike. Palmer-style br  looks like lr,  and d looks like cl. Then there's aesthetics—Barchowsky would like to rid the world of all those unnecessary, misshapen loops.

We brought home Barchowsky's program for improving existing handwriting called Fix It … Write. Each lesson begins with warm-up exercises. These are patterns that look like vvvvv or wwwww or mmmmm, to get our muscles familiar with the basic shapes of many letters and give a crucial sense of rhythm. Each lesson lasts no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Barchowsky believes the long practice sessions of old-time handwriting instruction only frustrate students.

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I learned from Florey that the Egyptians used a wavelike symbol for water that the Phoenicians adapted and called mem—thus the letter M. I loved the soothing mindlessness of the exercises, particularly seeing the mmmm's break across the page—a tiny, rolling sea.

A few letters are introduced in each lesson, followed by putting them together in words, with the emphasis on what does and doesn't join. The key to Barchowsky's italic is the built-in breaks between letters, which vastly increases legibility. Take, for example, her practice sentence, Tim's mama raps a purple pan. In the word Tim the T stands alone, while the i and m are joined. Mama is completely joined, while for purple the purp is joined, and so is the le, but there is a break between the two segments. Although it might seem that the tiny lifts of the hand between writing some letters would slow you down, it's actually more instinctive than trying to control the runaway joins of conventional cursive.

From the start, my daughter's workbook showed dramatic improvement in her penmanship, but her homework lagged. It turns out she thought this new handwriting should be saved for something special and wasn't practical for every day. I convinced her having everyday handwriting that looked special was the whole point.

Each evening (OK, each evening we got to it), my daughter and I sat side by side doing our warm-ups and writing our practice sentences. The italic alphabet started to feel more effortless. My grocery lists were becoming legible. When I wrote checks I no longer worried about having to void them because of unreadability. I even decided to make my signature more pleasing, which backfired the day I was unable to transfer money to my Keogh account because my signature didn't match the one on file. But still, when my writing was under pressure—taking notes during an interview, for example—it would revert to my usual messy scrawl. It was a struggle to keep conscious track of the look of my handwriting while trying to keep up with my note-taking.

This project also brought up the question of whether the Princeton student was right—that we were spending time on an archaic skill no one cares about anymore. Besides interview notes, I typed almost everything else I wrote. My daughter did most of her homework on the computer. On the worksheets and tests she had to write by hand, no teacher had complained about her sloppy penmanship.

In the sliver of academia that studies handwriting, there's a debate about its actual value. Everyone agrees students need to learn handwriting, and that a clear, fast legible hand is preferable to the opposite. But Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, asserts that handwriting has a value beyond its basic utilitarian one. She says the physical process of making letters by hand more powerfully embeds written-language-making skills in children's brains than pressing keys.

Her argument has an intrinsic appeal. We mourn (and also celebrate) every time a new technology displaces an artisan's skill. But Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University who has worked with Berninger, says the actual evidence in favor of handwriting is weak. He says that if we really wanted to improve children's language skills, we would place enough computers in classrooms so that there was a keyboard at every desk. Sure, he says, kids need a basic ability to handwrite letters, but for fluency with the written word the keyboard is far superior. Children can easily correct mistakes and move text, and when they print out their work it's guaranteed to look good. "It's more motivating," says Graham.

Still, my daughter and I found the motivation to continue Barchowsky's program. Slowly over the 10 weeks it took us, the improvements started to become part of our unconscious handwriting. True, no bride would hire us to address her wedding invitations, but by the end we were both astonished at our progress. My daughter said, "I was embarrassed by my old handwriting; now I'm not. I used to hate it in class if I couldn't use the computer because my writing was such a scribble."

I no longer produce a jumble that makes me cringe, but Miss Mackenzie drilled me so well that I have found it almost impossible to completely eradicate my loops. The letter L is the H1N1 of my handwriting; just when I think I have the loop scourge under control, a new outbreak appears.

Both my daughter and I agreed that to really get attractive handwriting, we should do the Barchowsky class over again. We talk about it from time to time. But we realize that it would take the kind of energy you find in a quick brown fox. We're just a couple of lazy dogs.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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