- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Kindergarten students at Fairfax Baptist Temple Academy don't learn to print they learn the art of handwriting.

Starting on the first day of school, children begin drawing the curves and loops of cursive script rather than the block print taught in most schools.

"We believe it is simpler for children to learn this way," says Letitia Baldwin, a first-grade teacher at the Fairfax school. "Children's movements flow more easily with cursive. I find kids love it. By the end of first grade, parents come in and tell me their kids write better than they do." The children are not taught printing Mrs. Baldwin says they usually teach themselves.

Handwriting is a low priority in some schools, handwriting experts say. Children typically get coaching from kindergarten through third grade, but one-on-one instruction beyond that is rare unless a child has significant difficulties. Youngsters are often directed to use the computer, bypassing the struggle with pen and paper.

"Handwriting tends to be the least taught subject in school other than lining up for gym," jokes Kate Gladstone, who runs Handwriting Repair in Albany, N.Y., a business that helps people improve their handwriting skills.

"The amount of teaching varies widely from school to school, and there are about 50 different methods out there," she says. "Children get about 15 minutes of instruction once or twice a week. Then it is assumed that you know it."

A nation of scribblers

Decades of limited emphasis on handwriting has produced a blight of poor penmanship that impedes communication sometimes with deadly consequences. Last year, a Texas jury awarded $450,000 to the family of a man who died after a pharmacist misread his doctor's handwritten prescription.

The problem costs U.S. businesses $200 million annually, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, publisher of handwriting textbooks for schools. Illegible handwriting on tax forms holds up delivery of nearly $100 million in refunds every year, the Internal Revenue Service estimates.The decline in penmanship began in the 1930s, when educators began to shift the emphasis away from the elaborate handwriting styles popular in the 19th century, handwriting experts say. In the late 19th century, schoolchildren were expected to spend hours honing their skills at producing the flourishes of the stylized scripts popular at the time.

"It was an era when so much more time was devoted to handwriting skills," says Nan Barchowsky, a handwriting expert who lives in Aberdeen, Md. "But educators decided in the 1920s and '30s that these methods were too difficult."Ms. Barchowsky, who tutors both adults and children in handwriting, developed a style of writing the alphabet that she says can enable people to write quickly as well as legibly. She devised the method after closely studying the fine motor movements of elementary school students just learning to write.One of her core beliefs is that children should not have to relearn a set of movements when they make the transition from print to cursive. She also says teachers and parents should make sure children develop a good posture and appropriate pencil hold from the outset of instruction.

"Children should have their feet on the floor or on a stool for support and their backs should not touch the chair," she says. Desks and chairs should fit the child's body, an ideal that is often impossible in many school systems, Ms. Barchowsky says. She also recommends that a slanted writing surface be provided for beginners.

Let them use computers

Some schools get around handwriting headaches by relying on computers a tactic that dismays experts like Lorette Konezny, an author of children's handwriting books.

"I'm hearing from parents that schools no longer think handwriting practice is important once the kids get to third grade," Mrs. Konezny says. She is president of Pen Notes Inc., which sells handwriting books, in Freeport, N.Y. "They think the computer is going to fix everything."

Her most recent book, "Get in Shape to Write," helps determine whether 3- to 5-year-olds have the fine motor skills necessary to manipulate a pencil. The book uses textures, drawing shapes and games to test whether a child is ready to learn to write.

Mrs. Konezny became interested in the relationship between handwriting and fine motor skills when her son, now 16, encountered difficulties as a child when learning to write. She took her son to an occupational therapist, who determined that the boy had a problem with depth perception. After a summer of therapy, the boy's handwriting difficulties disappeared.

One of the lessons she learned is that some children have more manual dexterity than others.

"I think that what is happening is that children are being required to write at much earlier ages than they were in the past," she says. "Many times, children become frustrated because they aren't really ready to write or they're not shown the proper patterns. I feel that it's important that we prepare them."

Practice also is critical, she says. And children who are urged to use computers for all their assignments won't get this practice. "Just because there are computers doesn't mean the child doesn't need to write. Not everything is going to be on the computer."

Making the transition

When Karen Chase's 9-year-old daughter, Megan, learned cursive writing this year, the switch was relatively easy. Megan attends Arlington Traditional School, an elementary public school that puts a strong emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic.

The school starts its students in kindergarten with D'Nealian printing, a method that is a modified form of italic that proponents say makes for an easy shift from printing to cursive. Children get an introduction in cursive in second grade. By the end of third grade, they are expected to be proficient in forming upper and lower case cursive letters.

Computers are not an option as a replacement for learning handwriting, Mrs. Chase says. While some special projects are allowed to be done on computer, the children are expected to turn in a certain amount of handwritten work each week. It counts as part of their grade.

"I would recommend that any parent go back and learn the method of handwriting their child is learning," she says. "That way, the kids won't look at your writing and say, 'That's not the way you make an H.' " It also helps if the parent give children better supervision when they are working on handwriting assignments.

Like many adults, Mrs. Chase has developed her own hybrid handwriting style that is half print and half cursive. The reason adults develop hybrid styles is because traditional cursive methods taught in schools are too cumbersome when people need to write quickly, handwriting experts say.

"It's been proven that most people can learn to write cursive and be reasonably neat if they write slowly," Ms. Gladstone says. "But can they keep it neat when they need to write fast? Usually not."

This year's winner of a penmanship contest sponsored by Zaner-Bloser agrees. The annual contest, which awards the winner $1,000 in savings bonds, attracted more than 100,000 entries nationwide this year. Ten-year-old Lauren Spaans of Grand Rapids, Mich., won the contest.

"Go slow" is the advice she has for people who want to learn to write neatly. She adds: "Practice. And have a pencil that you really like. Sharp pencils can make for neater handwriting."

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