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Cursive, foiled again

We e-mail, we text, we Twitter - what will become of handwriting?

From Sarah Orne Jewett's ''The Country of the Pointed Firs.'' From Sarah Orne Jewett's ''The Country of the Pointed Firs.''
By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / January 19, 2009
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HAMDEN, Conn. - "The moving finger writes," says the famous Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, "and, having writ, moves on." Nowadays, the finger more likely is hammering away on a computer keyboard, texting on a cellphone, or Twittering on a BlackBerry.

If you predate the computer age, you might remember a school subject called "penmanship," which trained your cursive handwriting, usually by the Palmer Method. The penmanship teacher would come by once a week to rate your work, and if your handwriting was bad, you'd hear about it. It's still taught, to be sure, but it's no longer emphasized. "There's been a decline in attention to all kinds of basic skills," said Louise Spear-Swerling, coordinator of the graduate program in learning disabilities at Southern Connecticut State University. "With handwriting, people think it's just not that important."

Some people are concerned, though, and one is Kitty Burns Florey, whose book "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting" comes out Friday - John Hancock's birthday and National Handwriting Day. Florey, author of nine novels and a book about sentence diagramming, became interested in the subject after reading that computer keyboarding has displaced handwriting in schools.

"My first reaction was horror," Florey said in an interview at her home, "then I thought, 'Why would anyone use handwriting in today's world?' I write my books on the computer. I discovered two schools of thought: One is that it wouldn't matter if nobody learned handwriting because we all have computers, and the other is that this is an interesting, historic, valuable, and beautiful skill that has been around for thousands of years, and we are just tossing it out."

Diane Desmond, who has taught fourth grade for 39 years at Fall River's Letourneau Elementary School, says pressure on teachers to improve test scores is partially to blame. "Cursive was always taught in the third grade," she said. "In the last four or five years, I've had more students who have trouble with it. This year, I have five or six. They have trouble reading it, too."

Victoria Munroe of Northampton, who taught for 10 years in the New Salem-Wendell district, said she had no training in college or the school system on the teaching of handwriting. "I walked in and they said, 'Here are some worksheets; see what you can do.' The kids couldn't write, they couldn't hold a pencil, they were tiring, and I was supposed to be moving them into words and sentences and paragraphs." Finally she took a workshop, on her own initiative, in the teaching of handwriting.

To previous generations, clear and speedy handwriting was essential to everything from public documents to personal letters to generals' orders in battle. As literacy became more widespread, various handwriting methods arose. There was italic, starting in the 15th century, and then in the 17th century came roundhand - called copperplate in the United States - seen in the Declaration of Independence and the script of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1820s, Platt Rogers Spencer developed the Spencerian script, which became the American standard in schools (it survives in the Coca-Cola logo).

Then came A.N. Palmer. While working as a clerk in Iowa in the 1880s, Palmer devised a way of writing that eliminated Spencer's fancy curlicues and purportedly minimized fatigue, too. He promoted his method in a book, "Palmer's Guide to Muscular Movement Writing," and by 1912 his method was dominant in American schools. Palmer and its offshoots featured the odd large number 2 for the capital Q, the capital D with the little forelock, and the M and N that start with a loop.

However much you studied your Palmer, though, your "hand" was distinctive - as personal as your voice or laugh. But as typewriters proliferated after World War II, handwriting gradually became less important. Authors typed their manuscripts and students typed their school papers. As telephones became universal, letter-writing virtually disappeared. In the e-mail age, most people seldom need to write more than a grocery list or a short note, or sign a check. It's not only kids; many who formerly wrote fluently and neatly have forgotten how.

"It's a very disturbing problem," said Kate Gladstone of Albany, N.Y., who has a website specializing in handwriting improvement. "I see people in their 20s and 30s who cannot read cursive. If you cannot read all types of handwriting, you might find your grandma's diary or something from 100 years ago, and not be able to read it." There are practical concerns as well. Sometimes we don't have a computer, or the professor won't let us bring it to class to take notes. Or sometimes, as happened in New Orleans hospitals during Hurricane Katrina, computers lose power and medical orders and records have to be written out by hand.

A 2007 national study funded by the US Department of Education found that nine out of 10 teachers reported that they were devoting an average of 70 minutes per week to the teaching of handwriting, but that only 12 percent said they were adequately trained to teach it. Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, who led the study, cautioned that these were self-reported numbers, and added that in a separate study with direct observation of 22 teachers in one school system, far less time was devoted to handwriting.

Though he does not deny the importance of keyboard skills, Graham is worried by the decline of handwriting, especially the loss of "fluency and automaticity." He recalled that his daughter, now an adult, had severe difficulties in reading and handwriting in primary school. "We said to the teacher, 'Why aren't you teaching handwriting?', " Graham said. "The answer was, 'For handwriting and spelling, why worry? She'll be using the computer someday.' The problem was that she was developing a negative attitude toward writing because she didn't do handwriting well."

Kitty Florey is not so much worried about the educational damage as about loss of a direct connection with a loved or admired person of the past. Today we can see Mark Twain's or Charles Dickens's manuscripts or letters, she said, the marks they made with their own hands. "You can see where they dipped the pen, and the little drips of ink," she said. "My great-great grandchild may have my mother's letters to me; they will be nice artifacts, but she might not be able to read them."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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