Skip to comments.Back to the Basics of a Legible Hand [retired teacher's handwriting class, SAT starts 25-min essay]
Posted on 01/19/2005 9:58:26 AM PST by Mike Fieschko
BEL AIR, Md.
FOR 12 years after retiring from the faculty of Harford Day School in this Baltimore suburb, Nan Jay Barchowsky had happily pursued her unquiet version of dotage. She wrote a textbook, designed a typeface, spent time on her pottery and watercolors. Then, in the person of the Harford headmistress, duty called.
So Ms. Barchowsky found herself the other morning standing before a class of eighth graders, talking about posture and grip, dictating sentences about "greedy green gremlins" and "reverent corruptible reprobates," and trying within the constraints of 25 minutes to teach these teenage pupils a skill most barely possessed - the ability to write clearly and rapidly in script.
Behind their cowlicks and braces, these adolescents already knew Latin and Greek roots. They understood the modified predicate and compound appositive. They wrote research papers on topics like the role of friends, counselors and confidantes in "Romeo and Juliet." Yet even in a private school with a healthy respect for traditional pedagogy, one of the "3 R's" had gone missing in the high-tech age.
When Ms. Barchowsky asked the dozen students to start writing, all but two instinctively went to print. Kelsey Niemeyer had a typical story. She had learned script in second or third grade, but in middle school her teacher stopped requiring her to use it, and so, like an unused muscle, the ability atrophied. The other week, when Kelsey's mother asked her to write a thank-you note, and to do it cursively so it looked grown-up, Kelsey realized she could no longer remember how to form many letters.
There is nothing so unique, so peculiar about Kelsey's situation or Harford Day School's. Both bear testimony to the diminishing importance of handwriting instruction and quality in American schools. Nobody ever issued an edict on the subject, although state standards for handwriting's role in the curriculum tend to be vague and easily ignored. This trend took hold more as a result of indirect decisions and unexamined premises.
At one end of the educational spectrum, the emphasis on standardized testing and basic skills has led elementary schools to double the class time devoted to math and language arts, crowding out penmanship along with art, music, science and other supposedly ancillary subjects. On the other flank, the "whole language" method of teaching literacy, with its emphasis on creative expression and critical thinking, has diminished instruction in phonics, spelling and grammar, among other traditional skills. Straddling the philosophical divide is the assumption that somehow, magically, every pupil, rich or poor, will have a computer available at all times.
As for the cumulative result, a recent national survey of teachers in grades 1 through 3 by Prof. Steve Graham of Vanderbilt University found that while most said they did teach handwriting, a vast majority admitted that they had no training in the subject, had no curricular materials for it and, for good measure, didn't enjoy it. Zaner-Bloser, an educational publishing company known for its handwriting books, saw its business drop steadily from the early 1970's until the mid-1990's, said Richard Northup, a vice president.
Even now, when those sales are gradually improving, teachers insist on lessons that require no more than 15 or 20 minutes a day, the tiny slice of time they have available for the subject, Mr. Northup said. Only a few colleges and universities - Brigham Young, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa - put much emphasis on handwriting in teacher-education courses.
A skeptic might fairly ask why this matters. Professor Graham's study of elementary school pupils indicated a link between their difficulty in handwriting and weaknesses in the grammar and content of their compositions. One reason, quite simply, is that a brain struggling to make a hand form letters does not devote enough attention to more advanced tasks.
In high school and college, any student without a 24/7 laptop cannot hope to keep accurate notes on a lecture course. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting specialist based in Albany, estimates that while a student needs to jot down 100 legible words a minute to follow a typical lecture, someone using print can manage only 30. "That's fine for class," she said, "if the class is first grade."
Beyond the matter of speed, script remains a signifier of maturity, as Kelsey Niemeyer realized, and legibility matters on doctor's charts, job applications and absentee ballots, among other documents. As The Journal News in Westchester County recently reported, a judge disqualified ballots in a tightly contested State Senate race because he could not read the signatures.
NOTHING, though, supplied such a jolt to the handwriting cause as the advent of the new Scholastic Aptitude Test. In the version being introduced this March, each student must write a 25-minute essay. And that essay, unlike the answers to the SAT's multiple-choice questions, will be read and rated by two genuine human beings, as Nan Barchowsky was quick to remind a class at Harford Day School.
"Do you know anything about the SAT's?" she asked, and the hands of these ambitious children predictably rose. "The people who'll grade those essays won't have any time to decipher illegibility. Scary thought, isn't it?" She paused. "And you're probably going to be taking notes for the rest of your lives. I don't know anybody who works on a computer and doesn't also have a pad nearby."
Enlightened and perhaps alarmed, the students dutifully went through several of Ms. Barchowsky's exercises, some involving words and others slanting lines. They heeded her instruction about sitting upright, not leaning on an elbow, placing the pen between index and middle fingers. Then she harvested the papers so she could analyze strengths and weaknesses before the next week's lesson.
None of these methods differed greatly from what Ms. Barchowsky was doing later in the morning with a class of first graders. Something had happened to those 13-year-olds on the way to eighth grade; a fundamental skill had been lost to disuse and disregard. Now it was Ms. Barchowsky's job to roll back the calendar to 1998 or so and do it over, like an anthropologist teaching a tribe one of its own ancestral rituals.
"We don't do the glamorous makeover here," said Susan G. Harris, the headmistress. "We believe that skills and habits of the mind take years to develop. We just know that there aren't quick fixes. With handwriting or anything else, you need the firm foundation there. Once you learn to walk, you won't go back to crawling again."
Thanks for posting this, Mike. This is the kind of story the NYT does very well.
I may even look around for a website with some exercises to improve my handwriting, it being all block capital letters right now.
"Blair" Maryland ping.
Why is that, I wonder? I tutor off and on and I just can't believe that lecture material has become more dense. From my own experience, I'd have to say that students are no longer taught how outline lectures.
But the handwriting angle is interesting. Mine has degraded, no doubt. In fact, I was thinking of teaching myself copperplate this summer to sharpen it up a little.
Cursive is useless. It requires the same low-tech equipment to produce as hand printing, and is harder to read. It is in the process of going extinct. I went through school before the computer age -- even in college many of my research papers were handprinted, rather than typed -- and haven't used cursive since early elementary school.
The lecture notes are on the course website. The computer is needed to access them.
I was doing research at the coroner's office a couple of weeks ago, reading the reports from the early 1900s. It was a pure pleasure reading the handwriting, nothing was illegible, the gentleman must have been throughly trained in the Palmer method.
Ah! I tutor math and this is less of an issue. In fact, the reason they need tutoring is the poor lesson plans offered by the schools.
Still, wouldn't students benefit by taking their own notes? Or is this a teach-to-the-test thing?
Actually I expect it would work well for math. I'm a 40-something banker who's taking General Chemistry at a local college (to ward off brain-rot). And I got an A last semester, so I think I'm doing it right. I do copious outlining of the textbook, which is much more detailed than the lectures. The online material consists of the slides the professor uses in the lecture (not very useful in my opinion, but good for an occasional quick review), as well as detailed solutions to all the problems presented in the recitation section (different from the ones in the textbook-based homework). If you were trying to scribble down all the solutions as the prof writes them on the board, you wouldn't really be able to pay attention to what's going on. However, it's very useful to have copies of them for review, as they tend to be similar to exam questions.
Cursive, IIRC, developed as a writing style to avoid a specific problem with quill-style pens. Any time you put the pen down to the paper, you risk getting an ink blot. Cursive, by connecting all the letters in a smooth, flowing line, avoids some of the ink blots. I read a study a few months ago that found that a mixture of cursive and printed letters is the fastest and most common way of writing. Legibility is an issue with any writing system.
I think it depends on the class. My students are high school/remedial math freshman students. The school websites I've looked at weren't too encouraging. These kids lack the type of fundamentals that you and I had mastered by the 5th or 6th grade. Their teacher's websites don't really cover that kind of material.
Now I would have loved that kind of website for my college math and science classes.
Obviously the website material needs to be tailored to the students' skill level. But I can see where a website could be useful to remedial students, by giving explanations of the same thing over and over again, using different examples, and different ways of explaining, and putting it in a format where students can review it as many times as is necessary. My Chemistry website also had textbook publisher-provided interactive features, like homework problem sets and quizzes. If it hadn't been prone to frequent technical glitches, it would have been useful. For example, it would provide "hints" on how to go about solving a problem. For remedial level students, a site programmed to correct errors in each step of multi-step problems (like long division or multiplying multi-digit numbers) might be helpful. Of course, a website is only useful to students who are motivated enough to use it, which many be a big problem with your students.
*laughs weakly while snapping bull whip*
Yes, since I am more or less a parent's last resort, I find that intense supervision coupled with menacing stares is the kind of "hand on" approach that works best.
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