In digital age, more t’s are crossed poorly

The Boston Globe – May 6, 2007

Michael Gagnon can trace his decline to the fourth grade, when he was introduced to a computer.

“From there it was all downhill for my handwriting,” he said. Today, Gagnon sometimes struggles to decipher his own writing.

“If I go back to it a day later, it’s like a maze,” he said. His co-workers at Teksystems in Framingham agree — the 25-year-old technical recruiter is forbidden from muddying the office whiteboard with his scribbling. But Gagnon is not concerned about his lack of proficiency with a dry-erase marker.

“Handwriting is kind of obsolete anyway,” he said.

That echoes the sentiments of other adults who have traded pencils and pens for keyboards. Computer dependency has turned their cursive writing into jittery strings that mimic seismograph readouts and produces printed letters that look jagged enough to break skin. Educators agree that children are growing into adults who are more comfortable wielding BlackBerrys than Bics. But they are divided on whether illegible handwriting is a serious problem, and if it is, what to do about it.

Elementary schools, squeezed by standardized testing and an increasing number of curriculum requirements, are spending less time on penmanship. By high school, most students stop joining letters, reverting to the print style they learned from kindergarten through second grade. One measure of how eager they are to abandon cursive writing is the SAT. Since the College Board began requiring handwritten essays as part of the exams two years ago, 85 percent of the more than 4.5 million essays have been printed, said Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the College Board.

As a result, formal handwriting is on the way to becoming more of an “art form” than practical skill, according to Katherine Boles, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

“Computers are just taking over,” said Boles, who taught third and fourth grade at the Edward Devotion School in Brookline for more than a quarter-century.

Those who earn their living by teaching handwriting say it has not been supplanted by e-mail and text messaging.

“If you go back as far as 1871, typewriter companies promoted the notion that handwriting would become obsolete,” said Kate Gladstone, a handwriting “repair” specialist based in Albany, N.Y. “People still need to write things by hand. Even in the most computerized workplaces you see a blizzard of Post-it notes and little strips of paper.”

There is no consensus, however, on how to make handwriting more appealing than key strokes.

Some specialists, including Gladstone and Inga Dubay and Barbara Getty, handwriting consultants in Portland, Ore., promote a style of writing that is based on italic, using same-shaped cursive and print letters.

“You build on previously learned concepts,” said Dubay, who likens poor handwriting to “mumbling on paper.” The intent of Getty-Dubay and similar styles is to make the move from printing to a loop-free cursive easier and faster.

“I describe it as print with a slant,” said Karen Conrad , president of Therapro Inc., a Framingham occupational-therapy firm that sells handwriting tools and instructional materials. “Your hand goes across the page instead of going up and down. It’s very efficient.”

The style contrasts sharply with the approach taken by Zaner-Bloser Inc., which calls itself “the nation’s leading provider of handwriting materials,” although it did not provide numbers to substantiate the claim.

“We use a vertical manuscript for printing — letter shapes that are straight up and down,” said Dennis Williams , national product manager for the Columbus, Ohio, company. Children recognize vertical letters in books and advertisements from an early age, Williams said; introducing italics in the third grade adds confusion. To go from print to cursive with Zaner-Bloser, “all they have to do is slant the paper,” he said.

Until about 20 years ago, virtually everyone taught cursive. But recent statistics are difficult to find, partly because handwriting instruction is often left up to individual schools or teachers.

The Boston public school system does not specify how it should be taught, said Ann Deveney, senior director for English Language Arts in kindergarten through fifth grade. “There are different programs used in different schools,” Deveney said, including Handwriting Without Tears, which places early emphasis on the most commonly used letters. Teachers set their own standards for “neatness and letter formation,” she said, but by third grade they expect students to write in cursive.

Nationally, a 2005 survey by Saperstein Associates Inc. — commissioned by Zaner-Bloser — found 87 percent of teachers in kindergarten through third grade said they still teach some form of penmanship.

“A big motivation for teaching handwriting is so students can do well on standardized tests,” said Marty Saperstein, president of the Columbus, Ohio, firm.

“Schools don’t put a lot of weight on handwriting because there are so many other things in the curriculum that take precedence over it,” said Nancy Witherell, head of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Development at Bridgewater State College. “They are teaching what they need to teach in order to pass their assessments,” including Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

On that level, they seem to be succeeding: Scoropanos, the College Board spokeswoman, said no SAT essays have been illegible.

“Students clearly understand that when the stakes are high that they need to focus on their penmanship,” she said.

Still, short of being forced to take an exam, people who do the bulk of their writing on computers say they have no plans to seek remedial help. They cannot conceive of composing anything more complex than a “to do” list without the ability to cut, paste, and spell-check it into shape.

“It’s as if my brain is attached to the keyboard,” said Susan Coia Gailey, a strategic planner for Johnson & Wales University in Providence. “I want to write as quickly as I type and it’s just not possible. “

Another reason people avoid handwriting may be cold-sweat memories of grammar school penmanship sessions. For writers who attended school in the 1970s or earlier, that often meant the Palmer method, which gained popularity in the early part of the 20th century. Austin Palmer’s ornate cursive featured more repetition than talk radio sports programming and enough loops to make a stunt pilot queasy.

Gladstone said such memories should not prevent writers from occasionally leaving their keyboards. “Dot and cross letters as you go along instead of waiting until the end of the word,” she said. “If you can change just that one thing it would improve speed and clarity.”

Jim Paisner , 59, a Carlisle resident and member of the Concord Chorus , could have used the advice when he jotted a note to himself during a recent rehearsal. Later, Paisner was unable to read the note. “Four or five words, and I couldn’t decipher even one,” he said. “I wonder what I was telling myself?”