I recently watched a piece on the CBS Sunday Morning show that featured a report on the current state of handwriting instruction. (Watch the piece here.)
The reasons this story of a seemingly antiquated skill caught my eye were:
• I used to work for Zaner-Bloser, one of the leading providers of handwriting instruction.
• Teachers today say they barely have time to teach the basic subjects like math and reading let alone cursive handwriting.
• I have pretty lousy handwriting.
In a world that sends out 294 billion e-mails and almost 5 billion text messages each day, you could reasonably assert that keyboarding and perhaps even thumb dexterity are more worthwhile skills than handwriting. Tamara Plakins Thornton, a history professor at Buffalo’s State University at New York, says that the disappearance of practiced handwriting skills did not begin with the popularity of the home computer, but with the arrival of the typewriter in the late 19th century. This device presented huge competition for handwriting, so Austin Palmer, an instructor at the Cedar Rapids Business College in the late 1800s, set out to develop a fast and efficient means to write and keep up with the typewriter’s keyboard. From this effort came the Palmer Method of Handwriting. Palmer was convinced that good handwriting, and the discipline it took to perfect the skill, would lead to better citizens overall. People claimed “penmanship could reform delinquents” and “assimilate immigrants,” said Professor Thornton.
While there are few today who argue that good penmanship can turn a delinquent into a model citizen, some researchers claim that handwriting is more effective for stimulating memory and language skills than keyboarding. Others disagree, but will concede that good penmanship is better than bad because people can form judgments on the credibility of a person’s ideas based on the handwriting.
So where does that leave us? Zaner-Bloser Publishers used to recommend that students spend 30-45 minutes practicing handwriting every day, but that recommendation has been reduced to 15 minutes per day, recognizing that teachers don’t have much time to spend on handwriting instruction, especially when it seems like an unnecessary skill.
As for me, I do a lot of business writing and personal letter writing via the keyboard, but I feel handwritten letters and cards are still the best forms of personal communication because of the time, technique, and personality evident through the ink and paper. When I re-read letters my parents wrote to each other while my dad was overseas, read a recipe card in my mom’s handwriting, or read notes my own kids wrote to me when they were young, I feel a closer connection with the writers than I would have if the pieces had been generated as text messages or e-mails.