Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Excuse the pun, but in most schools today, penmanship is . . . sunk.

They just don’t teach it systematically any more, except maybe on a remedial basis. They teach computer keyboarding, instead. Penmanship is a key facet of good phonics-only reading instructional programs such as Spalding Phonics. But that’s rare.

Most Nebraska schools take a whole-language or “balanced literacy” approach to early reading. So the alphabet and pronunciation and spelling rules and the proper way to hold a pencil and position the paper on the desk kind of take a back seat to “groovy creativity.” So penmanship is pooh-pooh’ed.

That’s a shame. But when you try to explain to an educator that the multisensory experience of forming letters, words, sentences and paragraphs with paper and pencil is a key component of a good language education, and the best possible start for good writing skills on down the road, they look at you like you’re Amish and think it’s 1853.

Well, $%^& it, I’m NOT Amish. And this is NOT about convenience. It’s about brain formation. I’ve read a lot about it, and am a true believer in handwriting instruction. The decline in kids’ penmanship skills and enjoyment of writing worries me about as much as anything else that goes on in our schools today.

Everyone BUT educators seems to know how important proper handwriting is. It helps develop fine-motor skills and concentration. It builds self-esteem to be able to produce work that is neat and legible. It leads to the bedrock reading skill of automatic letter-recognition. That provides the threshold for automaticity and flow in writing, that can only come from lots of practice.

It makes sense: the more practice you have physically forming letters and words on paper, the easier it is for you to abstractly visualize them, and the faster you can accurately recognize them in text.

Similarly, if you have been taught to take care with HOW you form those letters and words, you learn that writing with precision and planning matters. Then even if you keyboard all your livelong days, you will still take care with forming those words, sentences, paragraphs and whole pieces of writing, because that’s how you started out in your crucial formative years. You just don’t get that same sense of writing craftsmanship if all you’ve ever done is bang away at a keyboard.

I’m not calling for people to have to handwrite everything throughout their lives; I’m just calling for giving them the best-possible start, which is clearly proper handwriting instruction.

Yet district curriculum chiefs and K-1 teachers don’t know these principles, because the teachers’ colleges don’t teach them, and there’s no money to be made in consulting on such a basic subject, so the inservices don’t teach them, either. It’s the same reason you don’t see a lot of TV ads for broccoli: everybody needs it, but it just isn’t . . . sexy.

So the educrats sneer at parents and taxpayers who urge them to go back to teaching proper handwriting in the early grades. It’s really pretty sad.

But here’s something happy: there’s a new study that shows that writing practice has a huge influence on alphabet letter recognition in preschool children, and it’s much better for kids than typing.

It’s in the journal Acta Psycologica, vol. 119, pp. 67-79 , 2005, by Marieke Longcamp, Marie-Thérèse Zerbato-Poudou and Jean-Luc Velay.

The abstract reads:

“A large body of data supports the view that movement plays a crucial role in letter representation and suggests that handwriting contributes to the visual recognition of letters. If so, changing the motor conditions while children are learning to write by using a method based on typing instead of handwriting should affect their subsequent letter recognition performances. In order to test this hypothesis, we trained two groups of 38 children (aged 3–5 years) to copy letters of the alphabet either by hand or by typing them. After three weeks of learning, we ran two recognition tests, one week apart, to compare the letter recognition performances of the two groups. The results showed that in the older children, the handwriting training gave rise to a better letter recognition than the typing training”

So if somebody tries to tell YOU that handwriting is obsolete, whip out that study to . . . jam their keys . . . and let’s work together to get the penmanship to set sail once again, for the benefit of our kids.

We must focus on that which will do our children the most good. I'd rather have a kid who can read and do basic math computations, than a kid who has perfect handwriting, but can't grasp math or reading. Of course, our schools should be on board with making sure our children can read, write, dechipher math problems AND have good handwriting, but I know we're dealing with a union that has an "us first" attitude. The sad part is, that your column's fans are likely mostly right-wing types (I would be one of those) or public school board members (I would also be one of those). I only wish that all parents of public school children would read the words you have written.

I think the NEA is doing a snow job on most of the parents. Most parents in my district believe our teachers are overworked and underpaid. Hmmmm... Let's think about that, shall we? In my profession, I hire project managers in a production environment for around $28K -30K Those people must have college degrees of the 4-year variety, be available 24-7 and be completely accurate -- mistakes are not tollerated. The strong survive, and the rest are moved to lower-paying jobs, or are eliminated. They have two weeks of vacation, and 10 holidays, which means they work 11 months per year. They pay high dollars for health insurance, with very high deductibles. The company pays a portion of insurance, but the employee pays the majority. My employees will also receive raises based on performance. Some employees (who have not met goals, and have not been team players) will receive nothing.

Oh how I wish this were true in our teaching environment.
Handwriting is much more important as a cognitive tool than a cosmetic improvement. It's a real brain-builder. They think that the more practice children have forming letters with precise handwriting, the more rapidly they recognize letters in words, and the sooner they become readers, and more accurate ones at that. They think the threshold of reading is being able to accurately and rapidly print the alphabet; I'm trying that out with my own 5-year-old, who's just on the cusp of reading, and it'll be interesting to see. The "child-centered," whole-language and balanced-literacy styles in most public schools, which minimize handwriting instruction and frown on having kids even sit at tables and desks doing what educators sneeringly call "seat work," have done a number on kids' reading ability. They have produced a lot of visual perception problems and reading disabilities because the kids aren't taught handwriting systematically right along with reading and speaking. Instead they are taught to scan a whole page of text and loop around from word to word and back again, to try to glean the holistic meaning of the text rapidly, instead of decoding the words in the old-fashioned alphabetic style, left to right, top to bottom, the way text is composed. Then they lay around on beanbag chairs on the floor with a pencil in their fist pretending to "write." That's a long-winded way of saying schools have goofed up what should be a simple, productive activity because they prefer their "groovy" new ways of doing things to what works, and incidentally, what's cheaper. Sigh. Schools are doing a terrible disservice because of their goofy affinity for this awful whole-language fad. As for math instruction, actually, a child who can visualize images with precision and detail -- such as happens when the child has been taught pennmanship and has a sharp mental image of what each alphabet letter looks like -- is better at visualizing the abstractions of math. And of course, the earlier and better the reading, the bigger the vocabulary, the better the comprehension, the more knowledge gained, the more able to handle the abstractions of math, etc. etc. So handwriting instruction really does give us the best bang for the bucks in producing people who can read, figure, think AND write better. As for how to get people to come and read my blog, you've got me on that. I wish I had a million bucks to promote it, but I don't. I just do the best I can telling what I know and hoping it'll help somebody somewhere. Thanks for writing! :>)
Think of school kids in the Far East when you think of penmanship. Asian kids must learn hundreds and then thousands of chinese characters in addition to their own native alphabetical systems (eg Korean Hangul and Japanese Kana.) They also must learn a meticulous system for writing out the characters step by step. NO DOUBT this contributes to their educational experience.
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