Archive for Monday, May 22, 2006

Disappearing ink

Some lament the lost art of putting pen to paper. Others say we’re more literate than ever.

May 22, 2006


Susan Lomshek has her third-grade students write notes to pen pals every couple of weeks.

No e-mails accepted here.

She wants her Schwegler School students to know how it feels to make carefully crafted cursive letters. And she wants them to know what it's like when they can't read the scrawled notes their pen pals send back.

"Personally, I think it's like an art form," Lomshek says of penmanship. "I think we've kind of lost some of that."

Gone are the days when students competed in handwriting contests like they were basketball or volleyball games. Today, students are more interested in typing on a keyboard, where everyone's letters come out the same shape, even if they don't come out at the same speed.

But some worry there could be consequences to letting proper penmanship disappear.

"Sloppy handwriting is just another symptom of a pervasive disregard in our educational system for matters of form," writes Tina Blue, a Kansas University lecturer who maintains a Web site on grammar and other language usage. "The same people who think penmanship doesn't matter will also usually argue that rules of grammar and usage should not count, as long as the reader can make out what the writer is trying to say."

Rough writers

Blue says that she's noticed a disregard for penmanship in the standardized essay tests she's graded through the years from students in third grade through high school.

"One thing that I have noticed is that, at all levels, most students have deplorable penmanship," she says. "It is often a struggle to make out one word out of five in any given essay. Some essays are so entirely indecipherable that they must be flagged as unscoreable."

A handwriting sample from 77-year-old Stanley DeFries.

A handwriting sample from 77-year-old Stanley DeFries.

Stanley DeFries, a 77-year-old Lawrence resident who maintains impeccable handwriting, says he agrees with the notion that penmanship is not as emphasized today as it was when he was growing up.

He remembers practicing spirals with his pencil in grade school to get the arcs just right for his letters.

"I worked at it," he says. "I wrote a lot of notes through the years. I always kind of prided myself in being able to write legibly."

DeFries, a former music department chairman at Ottawa University, says he fears people are leaning too much on computers nowadays.

"I think it's an easy thing to slough over, and kind of a lost art," he says. "A lot of people don't feel the urgency to write a thank-you note or write something legibly."

Write on target?

While today's communications might be different than those in previous generations, that might not be a bad thing.

A handwriting sample from third-grader Katrina Poulsen.

A handwriting sample from third-grader Katrina Poulsen.

That's the take of Michele Eodice, director of the KU Writing Center.

"We tend to see change as problems," she says. "We tend to be nostalgic for an earlier and perhaps mythical era of beautiful handwriting. We pine for the time when people wrote handwritten thank-you cards and letters. But truly, I think this is the most literate generation ever, one that communicates more in writing than any other - but just in new forms."

So while younger generations might write handwritten notes less frequently, they're communicating more frequently electronically. In some cases, that leaves penmanship as a more important skill for the classroom and less important for the rest of the world.

"Penmanship remains important for timed, in-class essays written in blue books, certainly," she says. "Because, like any writing, it must be understood by readers to be effective."

Writing a wrong

Doctors, almost certainly, have been the butt of more handwriting jokes than any other profession.

The question is whether there's any truth to the jokes. Dr. David Meyers, a professor of medicine at the Kansas University Medical Center, and his student, Kirstie Schneider, set out to determine that.

A handwriting sample from Schwegler School teacher Susan Lomshek.

A handwriting sample from Schwegler School teacher Susan Lomshek.

They wrangled up a group of 140 people representing seven occupations - accountant, attorney, automotive technician, construction worker, research scientist, physician and engineer. Half from each field were women, half were men.

They graded a writing sample - the old standby sentence "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" - and determined that none of the writing styles by professions differed in a way that was scientifically significant.

In fact, auto mechanics had the neatest writing, while attorneys were the sloppiest. Physicians fell somewhere in the middle.

But the researchers say their study raised concern across all professions, since about 30 percent of all writing was illegible based on their standards. And the stakes are usually higher when a doctor writes a sloppy note.

"There's not a lot of discussion" about bad handwriting among physicians, Meyers says. "But that fact absolutely exists. It's very difficult for physicians to read other notes, and that diminishes their effectiveness."

Write stuff

Jackson Schilling is determined to avoid that path.

Schilling is a third-grader in Lomshek's class, and he thinks he has "really good" cursive writing.

"You don't want to write so sloppy it's hard to read," he says. "I'll just write nicely and be careful."

Elyse Boxberger, another student in the class, says she often writes letters to family in Russell, Kansas City and Indianapolis.

She always tries to write neatly.

"If you didn't," she says, "they'd be like, 'What are they saying? I don't understand.'"


Kate Gladstone 12 years ago

Students don't compete in handwriting contests? In the USA and internationally, participation in the children's and teens' divisions of the World Handwriting Contest has grown exponentially every year since the Contest launched in the year 2000.

Nikki May 12 years ago

I would have never joined such a contest! I can't write well at all. I never could. I remember in 1st grade a teacher tearing up my paper in front of me and the class because I didn't write nicely.

Confrontation 12 years ago

I remember the best cursive writers in high school were also the least intelligent. It appeared that their actual report was so stupid that they needed something to try to impress the teachers. Is it possible that auto mechanics have better handwriting since they take a longer time to write down their info? Since they get paid a ton in "labor" charges, I'm sure writing stuff would be included in that cost.

Charla Welch 12 years ago

I remember my mother typing out my brother's book reports when he was in 4th grade. His handwriting was so messy that teachers asked him to type his reports so they could grade them. He's always tried to write well, but is just sloppy.

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