Do you Remember Penmanship?          

by Tina Blue

          I frequently score essays  for a company that processes the state assessment tests that are becoming so common all across the United States.  I have scored essays from nearly every grade level, from third grade right up to and including high school.  One thing that I have noticed is that at all levels, most students have deplorable penmanship.  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.

                    This problem is not confined to the K-12 level.  As a college instructor I have also noticed a drastic decline in the legibility of my own students' handwriting.  I am famous for my ability to make sense out of nearly indecipherable script, but even I am about ready to throw in the towel.  More and more often I cannot begin to guess what my students' scribbles are intended to represent.

                    A little over a year ago a student said that I was the only one of her college instructors who would accept handwritten essays, and she thanked me profusely for that policy.  Like many students, she could not afford her own computer, and she often had to go to the computer center alone late at night to type out a paper for another class.  Since she also could not afford a car, every late-night trip to the relatively isolated and poorly lit location of the computer center was a terrifying adventure.  Campus security is not great at KU, and many women--and even one young man--have been raped on this campus over the years.

                    I have never considered it fair to require all students to use computers when not all students can afford their own, so I have always allowed handwritten work.  But I may have to stop doing so, because over the past few years I have received far too many unreadable papers. 

                    As a tutor for people of all ages with learning disabilities (LDs), one thing I have discovered is that many students with dyslexia and ADD/ADHD have incredibly bad handwriting.  This is not necessarily an attribute of these conditions, but because students with LDs are encouraged to keyboard rather than to write their assignments, they often do not get a chance to practice writing by hand.

                    Of course, that is the key.  Writing by hand is a physical activity requiring a fair amount of eye-hand coordination and fine muscle control.  It takes practice to learn to do it well, and if LD students are actively encouraged to avoid writing by hand, then they will not develop a legible script.

                    And now even non-LD students use a computer for much of their schoolwork, and thus do not practice their handwriting, so the awful penmanship I first noticed in my tutoring students is now evident in practically all students.  Furthermore, teachers no longer seem to think they have a right to insist on neat, legible writing from their students.

                    When I was growing up, we learned penmanship.  We not only practiced it, we were given a grade for it.  There were actual consequences for sloppy, illegible handwriting. I do not find penmanship listed on the report cards of the elementary school students I know.  When I ask if they practice penmanship, they tell me that it is taught only in the most perfunctory way.  They learn a little bit in kindergarten, when they first learn to write, but that's about it.

                    With my tutoring students, I look for quick successes at the start of our program.  I have them do exercises that we used in penmanship classes when I was a child.  We called them "loop-de-loos." They were loops of varying sizes that we wrote across the page, making them as evenly sized, evenly slanted,  and evenly spaced as we could. 

                    At first my students find these simple loops hard to manage.  They are all over the place.  If you have awkward penmanship, try to do several lines of loop-de-loos.  You'll see how much coordination and control is required!  If you have neat handwriting, try the exercise with your nonwriting hand.  It will about as incompetent as the writing hand of someone who is just learning to write.

                    I also have my tutoring students copy chunks of prose out of books, newspapers, and magazines.  I ask them to copy at least one entire page in a spiral notebook each day.  What happens is that over a period of about two weeks, their handwriting begins to improve, slowly at first, and then very rapidly.  (What also happens is that in the process of copying from printed works they improve their ability to focus on what they read and even begin to learn new vocabulary words and to absorb some of the elements of sentence structure.)

                    But just watching their own handwriting become neater and more legible has an extraordinary effect on people who have never had much success in school.  For most of them, their infantile, illegible handwriting is a badge of shame, a sign of their academic incompetence.    Once they begin to develop a more mature script, they also begin to develop more confidence in their intellectual competence.

                    I believe that students should be taught penmanship in elementary school, and that they should be required to develop a legible hand.  They won't always be able to use a computer to do their work.  In-class essays and exams are required at every level of education, and students who cannot write--in the sense of not being able to put words down legibly on paper with a pen or pencil--are at a distinct disadvantage.  It is also true that lack of practice in handwriting means that the student may not be able to write quickly enough to take adequate notes in class or to complete an in-class assignment within a strict time limit.

                    When I was in grade school, teachers did not have Xerox copiers to run off assignment sheets and tests.  We usually had to copy our assignments or test questions from the board.  On those occasions now when I have a group of college students copy a few items from the board, it takes them forever.  They are such incredibly slow writers!  They copy from the board far less efficiently than second- and third-graders did when I was a child.

                    Anyone can learn to write neatly.  In fact, different countries teach different styles of handwriting, and I used to amuse my Asian students by guessing which country they came from by analyzing their penmanship styles.  (It's been many years since I've done that, but if I remember correctly, it was my Malaysian students whose pretty, angular handwriting sat not directly on the lines of ruled paper, but perfectly placed a fraction of an inch above them.) 

                    The fact that virtually all students within a specific system can master a characteristic style of penmanship strongly suggests that penmanship is something that can be universally taught.  Unfortunately, in our educational system anything that requires a bit of effort, especially if it is a little harder for some students than for others, is soon gotten rid of altogether, or at least demoted to a "nice-to-have-but not-really-necessary" status.  We've done this with math, science, essay-writing, reading, and grammar, so it's no wonder that something like penmanship is considered expendable.

                    But neat, legible handwriting is not just decoration.  It is part of the presentation of your work, and even a manifestation of respect for your reader--and for yourself.  Sloppy handwriting is just another symptom of a pervasive disregard in our educational system for matters of form.  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.

                    But why should the reader have to do so much of the writer's work for him?  Why should I have to approach anyone's writing as if it were a puzzle or a code that I have to find a key to? 

                    I have told my students this semester that I will accept handwritten work only if it is readily legible.  If I have to struggle to read a paper, I won't read it.  I will simply return it to the student to be resubmitted--as a late paper--in a more acceptable form. 

                    But I think it is absolutely ridiculous that I should even have to issue such a warning to college students!