Human Guinea Pig

Dead Letters

Everyone has terrible handwriting these days. My daughter and I set out to fix ours.

Click here to see how Emily’s and her daughter’s handwriting improved.

If you have school-age children, you may have noticed their handwriting is terrible. They may communicate incessantly via written word—they can text with their heads in a paper bag—but put a pen in their hands and they can barely write a sentence in decent cursive. It’s not going to be easy to decipher one either, if they think cursive might as well be cuneiform.

My daughter is in the eighth grade, and I realized several years ago that her rudimentary block-letter printing was actually never going to improve because handwriting had been chopped from the school curriculum. Children today learn basic printing in first and second grade, then get cursory instruction in cursive in the third grade—my daughter was given a cursive workbook and told to figure it out herself. She dutifully filled in every page, but she never understood how these looping letters were supposed to become her handwriting, so they never did.

I was appalled that she seemed stuck with this crude penmanship. After all, I had spent hours in Miss Mackenzie’s fifth-grade class perfecting my Palmer-derived hand. Surely part of being literate was having decent handwriting! But I was hardly one to talk. As with the human body, over the decades people’s cursive tends toward collapse. The loops become lumps and eventually degenerate into illegibility. My script piled up on the page, letters smashed against one another at different angles like a series of derailments.

Miss Mackenzie is long gone, but I decided to see if both my daughter and I could improve our handwriting. I was hopeful for her but dubious about myself. At her age, she’s in the neuron-growing business: Certainly she could master this basic skill. But at my age, I assumed handwriting was one of those things that was so fixed it couldn’t be fixed.

We went to the Maryland farmhouse home of Nan Jay Barchowsky, 79, who for almost 30 years has been a handwriting consultant with a line of instructional materials she developed. A calligrapher and artist, she started teaching handwriting at a local school, basing her letters on italic script—the elegant, quick form developed in early-16th-century Italy.

Barchowsky sat my daughter and me at a slanted writing desk and dictated a paragraph for us to write. She then looked at our work and tried to be diplomatic. She noted that my loops were too big and tended to get tangled in the lines of writing above and below, the sizes of my letters were inconsistent, they slanted in every direction, and certain ones—like R—were illegible while others got omitted altogether. She asked, “Do you ever go back and find you are unable to read your notes?” Yes, all the time!

Barchowsky said my daughter’s handwriting would look more sophisticated, and be both faster and more legible, if her letter size was more regular and she learned to create joins within her words. My daughter acknowledged her frustration. “My handwriting makes me look so young,” she complained. “Also it’s so big that on tests and reports I can’t fit in what I want to say.”

This Washington Post article describes the national abandonment of penmanship in recent decades. Until the 1970s it was taught as a separate subject through sixth grade. Children in mid-20thcentury America spent two hours a week on it. Today the teaching of it generally ceases after third grade, and a 2003 survey found that during the years it’s taught, it’s for 10 minutes or less a day. In a letter to the editor in response, a Princeton University student, Michael Medeiros, wrote that it made sense to ditch this “obsolete” subject. He reported he had “not had to read or write cursive in seven years.” Young people like him are voting with their fingers. The SATs began requiring a written essay in 2005, but only about 15 percent of the test takers use cursive; everyone one else prints.

Medeiros has a point. Things that we think are eternal and necessary may just be things that happened to us. In her recent book, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, Kitty Burns Florey reports that in Colonial America, literacy was valued because it allowed people to read the Bible. Writing was considered a separate skill, one mastered almost exclusively by men of the elite. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that an elementary school education—and lessons in handwriting—became universal.

Back then handwriting instruction was simply in the cursive (the word is derived from Latin for running) style of the day. But in the 1920s it was believed that teaching young children to print letters would be physically easier for them to master and that this writing would more closely resemble the typeface of books. So the manuscript style we all learned, known as “ball and stick,” was developed. This is the cause of nearly a century of distress, according to handwriting reformers, because the fine motor habits required for cursive writing are a different set from those required for printing. Children had to learn to write twice.

The beauty of Barchowsky’s method—besides that the writing is lovely to look at—is that it has to be taught only once. There is no switch-over from print to cursive. Instead, after primary grade students learn the written alphabet, they are taught to join the letters from the start. Unlike Palmer-style cursive, in which every letter is joined to another in a series of endless curves and loops, italic joins only some. That makes it a far more natural way of writing. After all, most adults eventually create their own idiosyncratic print-cursive mashup.

When Barchowsky, slender and energetic, describes traditional Palmer-style cursive, she can hardly contain her disdain. Palmer-method penmanship was the brainchild of A.N. Palmer, a “penman” born in 1860 who wanted to strip down the more elaborate writing style of the day. (It was known as Spencerian, after another American handwriting entrepreneur, Platt Rogers Spencer. His pleasing script lives on in the Coca-Cola logo.) By the early 20th century, Palmer’s alphabet and instruction methods went viral. When he died in 1927, Florey writes, three-quarters of American schoolchildren were using his method. (His company went bankrupt in 1987.)

But to Barchowsky, his legacy is a kind of virus, infecting the handwriting of generations. According to “italicists” like Barchowsky, the mechanics of Palmer are all wrong. Printing and italic both emphasize the downstroke of each letter, but Palmer-style handwriting emphasizes the upstroke. She says the shapes of the letters themselves are a problem. Writing e’s like they’re the squiggles on a Hostess cupcake leads to confusion between e, l, i, and r. Lowercase h, m, n, r, u, v, and w often look alike. Palmer-style br  looks like lr,  and d looks like cl. Then there’s aesthetics—Barchowsky would like to rid the world of all those unnecessary, misshapen loops.

We brought home Barchowsky’s program for improving existing handwriting called Fix It … Write. Each lesson begins with warm-up exercises. These are patterns that look like vvvvv or wwwww or mmmmm, to get our muscles familiar with the basic shapes of many letters and give a crucial sense of rhythm. Each lesson lasts no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Barchowsky believes the long practice sessions of old-time handwriting instruction only frustrate students.

I learned from Florey that the Egyptians used a wavelike symbol for water that the Phoenicians adapted and called mem—thus the letter M. I loved the soothing mindlessness of the exercises, particularly seeing the mmmm’s break across the page—a tiny, rolling sea.

A few letters are introduced in each lesson, followed by putting them together in words, with the emphasis on what does and doesn’t join. The key to Barchowsky’s italic is the built-in breaks between letters, which vastly increases legibility. Take, for example, her practice sentence, Tim’s mama raps a purple pan. In the word Tim the T stands alone, while the i and m are joined. Mama is completely joined, while for purple the purp is joined, and so is the le, but there is a break between the two segments. Although it might seem that the tiny lifts of the hand between writing some letters would slow you down, it’s actually more instinctive than trying to control the runaway joins of conventional cursive.

From the start, my daughter’s workbook showed dramatic improvement in her penmanship, but her homework lagged. It turns out she thought this new handwriting should be saved for something special and wasn’t practical for every day. I convinced her having everyday handwriting that looked special was the whole point.

Each evening (OK, each evening we got to it), my daughter and I sat side by side doing our warm-ups and writing our practice sentences. The italic alphabet started to feel more effortless. My grocery lists were becoming legible. When I wrote checks I no longer worried about having to void them because of unreadability. I even decided to make my signature more pleasing, which backfired the day I was unable to transfer money to my Keogh account because my signature didn’t match the one on file. But still, when my writing was under pressure—taking notes during an interview, for example—it would revert to my usual messy scrawl. It was a struggle to keep conscious track of the look of my handwriting while trying to keep up with my note-taking.

This project also brought up the question of whether the Princeton student was right—that we were spending time on an archaic skill no one cares about anymore. Besides interview notes, I typed almost everything else I wrote. My daughter did most of her homework on the computer. On the worksheets and tests she had to write by hand, no teacher had complained about her sloppy penmanship.

In the sliver of academia that studies handwriting, there’s a debate about its actual value. Everyone agrees students need to learn handwriting, and that a clear, fast legible hand is preferable to the opposite. But Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, asserts that handwriting has a value beyond its basic utilitarian one. She says the physical process of making letters by hand more powerfully embeds written-language-making skills in children’s brains than pressing keys.

Her argument has an intrinsic appeal. We mourn (and also celebrate) every time a new technology displaces an artisan’s skill. But Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University who has worked with Berninger, says the actual evidence in favor of handwriting is weak. He says that if we really wanted to improve children’s language skills, we would place enough computers in classrooms so that there was a keyboard at every desk. Sure, he says, kids need a basic ability to handwrite letters, but for fluency with the written word the keyboard is far superior. Children can easily correct mistakes and move text, and when they print out their work it’s guaranteed to look good. “It’s more motivating,” says Graham.

Still, my daughter and I found the motivation to continue Barchowsky’s program. Slowly over the 10 weeks it took us, the improvements started to become part of our unconscious handwriting. True, no bride would hire us to address her wedding invitations, but by the end we were both astonished at our progress. My daughter said, “I was embarrassed by my old handwriting; now I’m not. I used to hate it in class if I couldn’t use the computer because my writing was such a scribble.”

I no longer produce a jumble that makes me cringe, but Miss Mackenzie drilled me so well that I have found it almost impossible to completely eradicate my loops. The letter L is the H1N1 of my handwriting; just when I think I have the loop scourge under control, a new outbreak appears.

Both my daughter and I agreed that to really get attractive handwriting, we should do the Barchowsky class over again. We talk about it from time to time. But we realize that it would take the kind of energy you find in a quick brown fox. We’re just a couple of lazy dogs.