The Lost Art of Handwriting

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I was recently shocked to hear a school administrator say that she no longer saw any point in teaching handwriting to children. Huh? Did she mean only cursive? Or even simple printing? I wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. I was astonished; and being the antique that I am, I rejected the whole idea utterly. "No handwriting? That's preposterous!"

"Well, the kids are always texting and typing at the computer," she said, "and that is all they are ever going to do. They are not going to use handwriting, so why bother teaching it?"

Ubiquitous keyboards notwithstanding, I could not even vaguely imagine a world in which students were not taught handwriting. The whole idea was absurd. I just shook my head no, without even attempting to assemble a cogent counter-argument. No. Just NO. Little did I know that this idea had already taken hold among many of our teachers and schools.

I thought back to some fifteen years ago, when I was helping my son's scout troop with writing letters to public officials on selected civics topics. Mind you, this was at a time when we as a family were some years into our own home-schooling adventure, at a kitchen-table academy where handwriting was taken seriously, and I was, even at that time, appalled by the lack of handwriting skill in a few of those public school students. Some of them held their pencils in the most remarkably contorted ways, and at ten or twelve years old, their alphabetic scratches were barely legible. Were the teachers not really teaching it, even then? And this was before the time when children began getting their first texting cell phones just after graduating from diapers, so what excuse could the teachers possibly have given?

I thought back further, to the Dark Ages of the late 1960s, when my dear brother came home from his college endeavors at the Wharton School of Banking — where apparently they did think handwriting was a legitimate skill — and explained to me how to hold a pencil. I don't know if he had to go to Wharton to learn this, or if somebody had given him the hot dope beforehand. I was attending junior high school by then, and there he was, my big brother, home from college, telling me how to hold a bloody pencil. Embarrassing yes, but it was news, remarkably enough, and I never forgot it.

"If you hold the pencil with your index finger bent in," he said, showing me how I was doing it wrong, "you will never be able to write quickly, and if you have to write very much, you will get hand cramps. You won't be able to write fast enough to take notes in college. You won't be able to keep up."

Given that this was a revelation to me as a young teen, it would seem that even then, the teaching of proper handwriting was becoming a lost art… at least until you got to a college where they noticed whether or not you were literate.

Now, many school systems are actually institutionalizing the neglect of this skill. In fact, numerous states are abandoning mandatory requirements for teaching cursive altogether, in accordance with the Common Core State Standards for English, as you can read about here and here and here. The reasoning sounds so very plausible, too: “The kids aren’t ever going to use cursive. They only need to know how to type.” Well I’m sorry, but that is just complete, utter bunk. Do we really want students who are so tech savvy that they don’t know what a pencil is for?

Student with pencil: "Teacher, what is this?"

Teacher: "Some kind of historical artifact."

Student: "Well what do you do with it?"

Teacher: "I don't know, but don't stick it in your ear… you'll poke your eardrum out."

Student with pencil at airport:

TSA: "Where did you get that?"

Student: "In history class."

TSA: "Security, security! Passenger in possession of unidentified pointy object!"

Oh, but that's another story, isn't it?

If the trend continues, someday our advanced, evolutionary pupils won't even need normal hands. Instead they will develop great, long thumbs, like mechanized, biologic styluses, for poking at advanced, micro-techno keyboards.

Do we really want basic handwriting skills to become a vague, distant memory, the way Spencerian penmanship is for us now? Are we going to just ditch classic literacy altogether, and devolve into a populace educated into the production of typed-only language-substitute-acronymic "sentences" such as, "OMG, R U OK? C U L8R BIBI!" Could it be that we were well ahead back in the days of meticulously copying into our stupid little notebooks, "Oh look! See Spot run! Look Jane! Look Dick! Run, Spot, run!" You don't know how I have condemned that load of primary-reading trash, but at least copying those abysmal constructions required that we write out actual words with our actual hands, using actual pencils.

Perhaps some teachers still give a nod, perfunctory or otherwise, to printing in their elementary curricula, but if we let cursive go as a necessary skill, can printing be far behind?

It may be too optimistic to think that we could restore that time-honored subject known as "penmanship", but could we not at least teach our young scholars how to 1) hold a pencil correctly, 2) orient a sheet of paper correctly, 3) orient the pencil correctly in relation to said sheet of paper, and 4) produce legible alphabetic constructions thereon? And, over time, to do so with reasonable speed, so that their literacy be not entirely techno-dependent? Is this too much to ask?

And if we have to get involved in this and explain to our public school teachers what the connection is between fundamental literacy and a fast and legible hand, and if we have to step in and do the work ourselves of seeing that our students gain this fundamental skill, is this not reason enough to investigate whether public schools should have their hands in our children's education at all? I say it is, because I think it is a symptom of the much deeper disease of psycho-pharma-propagando-state-enforced anti-intellectualism. Not the teachers, mind you, the system: the morally bankrupt, unholy, and altogether spurious system.

I didn't write this to make a pitch, but when we were home-schooling, we encountered a book that we found extremely useful in our foundational literacy program: The Writing Road to Reading, by the wonderful Romalda Spalding, God rest her mighty soul. That book stood out in a class of many, because it included not only an intensive, no-nonsense program for teaching real phonics, but also laid out the essentials of teaching handwriting correctly. To her great credit, Ms. Spalding also set forth other remarkably sane thoughts on teaching reading, such as (I am paraphrasing here):

Students should use a dictionary to look up words they do not know the meanings of; and…

Students should read excellent books by single authors, not conglomerations by school committees.

Boy, was she refreshing! I still recommend that book to every home-school parent who crosses my path.

For now, we might at least start by teaching the little ones how to hold a pencil correctly, and give them a workable foundation. Some older students, too, may need a refresher, as I did, so…

Lay your writing hand on the table, very relaxed, pinky-side down, thumb-side up. You will see the natural curve of the hand, and the point where the thumb and index and middle fingers meet. The pointy end of the pencil, just above the sharpened part, sits in that little notch. The middle finger and thumb form a vise for holding the pencil, which rests on the edge of the middle finger. The tip of the rounded index finger rests on the edge of the pencil to help guide and steady it. It is a relaxed, rounded hold, like a kitty's paw. The length of the pencil lies just forward of the big knuckle.

If your student will but hold the pencil thus, and not scrunch up or contort the hand while writing, the motion, over time, will become fluid and reasonably fast, while remaining legible, and that of course is the material point… unless one is in medical school, where an illegible hand is a requirement for admission.

Have your student then put the forearms on the desk with the elbows just off the edge, and with the forearms comfortably close to the body, and place the paper parallel to the forearm, for both left and right-handed students. The writing hand stays below the base-line on which the writing is done.

Ms. Spalding's book explains all of this much better and in exacting detail, but that, in a nutshell, is how you hold a bloody pencil.

A legible hand is so basic to literacy that I shudder to think what we may become if we allow this fundamental skill to be lost. It is remarkable, indeed, that the topic has to be broached at all; that is an indicator in itself of how far — or how far down — we have come.

If you have students, or children, please help them with this essential skill. Lord knows, in the present school environment, they need all the help they can get. If they can write legibly when they get to college, their teachers, poor souls, who have had to suffer through so many illiterate freshmen, will marvel at their prowess. And these new, improved scholars, within college or without, should be able to write quickly, using a humble pencil and their actual hands… even if their keyboards go out.

Elizabeth Cameron [send her mail] is a writer and farmer who lives and works on a small, diversified farmstead in the Midwest.

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