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.

School for Scribbles. Click image to launch slide show.

Click here to see how Emily's and her daughter's handwriting improved.

If you have school-age children, you may have noticed their handwriting is terrible. They may communicate incessantly via written word—they can text with their heads in a paper bag—but put a pen in their hands and they can barely write a sentence in decent cursive. It's not going to be easy to decipher one either, if they think cursive might as well be cuneiform.

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My daughter is in the eighth grade, and I realized several years ago that her rudimentary block-letter printing was actually never going to improve because handwriting had been chopped from the school curriculum. Children today learn basic printing in first and second grade, then get cursory instruction in cursive in the third grade—my daughter was given a cursive workbook and told to figure it out herself. She dutifully filled in every page, but she never understood how these looping letters were supposed to become her handwriting, so they never did.

I was appalled that she seemed stuck with this crude penmanship. After all, I had spent hours in Miss Mackenzie's fifth-grade class perfecting my Palmer-derived hand. Surely part of being literate was having decent handwriting! But I was hardly one to talk. As with the human body, over the decades people's cursive tends toward collapse. The loops become lumps and eventually degenerate into illegibility. My script piled up on the page, letters smashed against one another at different angles like a series of derailments.

Miss Mackenzie is long gone, but I decided to see if both my daughter and I could improve our handwriting. I was hopeful for her but dubious about myself. At her age, she's in the neuron-growing business: Certainly she could master this basic skill. But at my age, I assumed handwriting was one of those things that was so fixed it couldn't be fixed.

We went to the Maryland farmhouse home of Nan Jay Barchowsky, 79, who for almost 30 years has been a handwriting consultant with a line of instructional materials she developed. A calligrapher and artist, she started teaching handwriting at a local school, basing her letters on italic script—the elegant, quick form developed in early-16th-century Italy.

Barchowsky sat my daughter and me at a slanted writing desk and dictated a paragraph for us to write. She then looked at our work and tried to be diplomatic. She noted that my loops were too big and tended to get tangled in the lines of writing above and below, the sizes of my letters were inconsistent, they slanted in every direction, and certain ones—like R—were illegible while others got omitted altogether. She asked, "Do you ever go back and find you are unable to read your notes?" Yes, all the time!

Barchowsky said my daughter's handwriting would look more sophisticated, and be both faster and more legible, if her letter size was more regular and she learned to create joins within her words. My daughter acknowledged her frustration. "My handwriting makes me look so young," she complained. "Also it's so big that on tests and reports I can't fit in what I want to say."

This Washington Post article describes the national abandonment of penmanship in recent decades. Until the 1970s it was taught as a separate subject through sixth grade. Children in mid-20thcentury America spent two hours a week on it. Today the teaching of it generally ceases after third grade, and a 2003 survey found that during the years it's taught, it's for 10 minutes or less a day. In a letter to the editor in response, a Princeton University student, Michael Medeiros, wrote that it made sense to ditch this "obsolete" subject. He reported he had "not had to read or write cursive in seven years." Young people like him are voting with their fingers. The SATs began requiring a written essay in 2005, but only about 15 percent of the test takers use cursive; everyone one else prints.

Medeiros has a point. Things that we think are eternal and necessary may just be things that happened to us. In her recent book, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, Kitty Burns Florey reports that in Colonial America, literacy was valued because it allowed people to read the Bible. Writing was considered a separate skill, one mastered almost exclusively by men of the elite. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that an elementary school education—and lessons in handwriting—became universal.

Back then handwriting instruction was simply in the cursive (the word is derived from Latin for running) style of the day. But in the 1920s it was believed that teaching young children to print letters would be physically easier for them to master and that this writing would more closely resemble the typeface of books. So the manuscript style we all learned, known as "ball and stick," was developed. This is the cause of nearly a century of distress, according to handwriting reformers, because the fine motor habits required for cursive writing are a different set from those required for printing. Children had to learn to write twice.

The beauty of Barchowsky's method—besides that the writing is lovely to look at—is that it has to be taught only once. There is no switch-over from print to cursive. Instead, after primary grade students learn the written alphabet, they are taught to join the letters from the start. Unlike Palmer-style cursive, in which every letter is joined to another in a series of endless curves and loops, italic joins only some. That makes it a far more natural way of writing. After all, most adults eventually create their own idiosyncratic print-cursive mashup.

When Barchowsky, slender and energetic, describes traditional Palmer-style cursive, she can hardly contain her disdain. Palmer-method penmanship was the brainchild of A.N. Palmer, a "penman" born in 1860 who wanted to strip down the more elaborate writing style of the day. (It was known as Spencerian, after another American handwriting entrepreneur, Platt Rogers Spencer. His pleasing script lives on in the Coca-Cola logo.) By the early 20th century, Palmer's alphabet and instruction methods went viral. When he died in 1927, Florey writes, three-quarters of American schoolchildren were using his method. (His company went bankrupt in 1987.)

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