On the street
Definitely because of the coming of computers and so much typing. People don’t want handwritten stuff anymore.
Emily Hutchinson learned to type before she learned to write.
She’s 9 years old and, as a soon-to-be fourth-grader, one of a number of children in the Lawrence school district who learned how to type before learning to form letters on a page. And that’s a scenario that’s easily changing the way our kids learn.
Kids are turning in typewritten assignments as early as first grade, and definitely by fifth grade, says Ann Bruemmer, director of curriculum services for the district. And that early keyboarding has forced the school system to re-evaluate the way things work.
Three years ago, the school system went out on a limb and revamped its entire hand-printing curriculum. It divorced itself from the long-used D’Nealian system and picked up “Handwriting Without Tears,” a program started in 1977 by the mother of a frustrated student.
“The intent of that program, as you can suggest by the name, is to take the difficulty out of the learning to write. Because the D’Nealian ... it had a lot of loops and things with it, and it was hard for some kids to learn,” Bruemmer says. “What ‘Handwriting Without Tears’ has done is made it more simplified in terms of strokes and the ways you can write, and it moves you then from that manuscript into cursive.”
Emily’s mother, Karen Wray, wasn’t so sure when Emily brought home her ‘Handwriting Without Tears’ workbooks last year at the beginning of third grade — the year children first learn cursive.
“I almost felt like we were dumbing-down penmanship, if that was possible, because it was so simplistic,” says Wray, who taught Emily how to write her name in cursive at home before the start of third grade. “I kind of mourn the loss of the time that we did spend on that and making your penmanship pretty, making that a priority.”
Buzz word: Legibility
The ‘Handwriting Without Tears’ cursive letters are certainly less flowery than the old D’Nealian. Bruemmer says that’s because that goal for educators today is purely practical: legibility.
“Generally, we don’t talk a lot about penmanship anymore,” Bruemmer says. “Basically, we’re looking at legibility. You’ll very seldom hear the word ‘penmanship’ anymore, you’ll hear ‘legibility.’”
And if legibility seems like a less-than-lofty goal, its importance is underscored by a quick conversation with someone who sees more than his fair share of scrawled sentences, Lawrence High English teacher Jeff Plinsky.
“As an English teacher, it’s more important to me that I be able to read it, at this point, than it is that it be a work of art visually,” Plinsky says. “There are some students who I will require to word-process instead of handing in handwritten stuff.”
Now, you may be thinking that with all that technology around, why are kids even hand-writing anything at all? Well, two things: In-class assignments are rarely typewritten, and not every child has consistent access to a computer for schoolwork. Sure, the schools have carts full of laptops and computer labs, but not everyone has a reliable one at home.
“We have a fair number of families that don’t have access to that technology,” Plinsky says of in-home computers. “In our English department, we have 32 computers to serve every child in that building. ... Say 1,100 kids take English every year, we’ve got 32 computers to service those 1,100 kids. So, we still do a lot by hand.”
And a computer doesn’t automatically make a child’s writing any easier to read, per se, says John Bode, a fourth-grade teacher at New York School.
“I think some of the same kids who are very sloppy in handwriting, they lack the same conventions on the keyboard, capitalizing and formatting the page nicely and that kind of thing,” Bode says.
The same goes for spelling — though kids have the aid of spell check on a computer, it’s not like it’s a free pass to perfect spelling, says Plinsky.
“You have to learn to spell correctly first before spell check will help you,” Plinsky says. “With younger students in particular who are trying to spell a word they’re not familiar with, spell check will give them lots of options, but if they don’t know how to spell it in the first place, frequently they chose the wrong option.”
Though, truth be told, Plinsky says that by the time he sees kids in ninth grade, some feel very uncomfortable hand-writing an assignment, simply because they don’t have the crutches of spell check and easy deletion.
“My own experience is that students feel more comfortable sitting in front of the computer and writing. It’s easier for them to put the first words on paper,” Plinsky says. “When they hand-write, they’re reluctant to put those first words down because there’s no backspace key.”
And though Plinsky says his department has had discussions about whether forcing assignments to be handwritten improves students’ thoughtfulness, he won’t argue that the addition of typewritten school work has improved the lives and grades of many students.
“There have always been kids with bad handwriting. I was one of them myself,” Plinsky says. “The advent of the computer certainly made, as a student, made my grades better, because teachers could more easily read my writing.”