Not According To Script

The other day, a Staples student talked about the SATs.

He’d done fine on the math, he said.  And most of the verbal section was okay.  The writing section, though, was really hard.

Why? I asked.  Was the question difficult?  Did the 25-minute time limit seem too short?

No, he said.  He meant it literally — the writing was hard.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually written something by hand.

And, he said — as puzzled and angry as if he’d been asked to write in Chinese characters — “they made us sign our signature in cursive.”  He’d forgotten how to do that — along with being “pretty unable” to read script — and worried if printing his name would invalidate his score.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Along with losing the ability to read analog watches and non-GPS maps, today’s teenagers have lost the art of handwriting.  They learned their ABCs by typing, not printing, and ever since then it’s been peck peck peck (and now, thumb thumb thumb).

In class today, kids take notes on their laptops and iPads.  They don’t slyly pass notes on crumpled pieces of paper; they text.  Every paper they write is on the computer.  Actual handwriting is as old-fashioned as fountain pens.

Child development experts have noticed the trend.  They worry that youngsters who don’t write by hand miss out on developing fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, even patience.

Writing by hand takes time — time to think about what you’re writing.  Yammering away on a keyboard is easy.  And if something doesn’t sound right, you just click “delete.”

I am, of course, writing this on a computer.  You should see what I’ve deleted already — actually, you won’t.  But I could write this by hand if I wanted to.  I even know how to use a fountain pen.

Just call me a 21st-century Renaissance Man.

35 responses to “Not According To Script

  1. You bring up such amazing topics, Dan, things I haven’t even considered. I know that even though I learned “cursive”, my handwriting isn’t as nice as my mother-in-law’s was (the Palmer Method, I think they called it?). I can’t wait to see the feedback from your readers.

  2. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    I love writing by hand. I love the look of it and I love the act of it. I also love sending hand-written notes and cards.

  3. I wish we had iPads back in the day. While I took classes in “penmanship” in elementary school, I never did get the hang of it. A teacher at Staples wrote on one of my papers that it looked like “a drunk chicken stepped in an inkwell and walked across the page.”

    My mom was worried that I wouldn’t pass the bar exam because no one would be able to read what I wrote. Actually, I really did have to take my time during that exam writing my answers more deliberately so that they would (hopefully) be legible.

    I think penmanship is somewhat comparable to art. Some people have great innate ability and others like myself just don’t have great skills, no matter how much effort the teacher and student put into it.

    Here’s to iPads and laptops.

  4. I never thought of this before… but you make an interesting point!!
    I remember my shock when my now 24 year old son didn’t know how to use a rotary phone!!
    (And how about the art of tying shoes since velcro??)
    I see another column…..

  5. When I was in my 30s, I switched from cursive to printing. Not sure why. Maybe I thought it looked more contemporary and cool? Maybe because my cursive never looked so great? After reading a few years ago that kids can’t do cursive, I, now in my 50s, made a point of going back to it. It took some concentration and my hand hurt too. And it still looked sloppy. But for now, I am glad to write in this fashion that will become obsolete in another couple of decades.

  6. In 1953, my favorite English teacher, Gladys Mansir,gave me a B+ on my thesis but told me it would have been an A if I didn’t have such a horrible hen scratch. In 1959 when I entered the Fairfield County Municipal Police Academy, and on the first day was told that all of our notes would have to be typed and checked weekly, I almost quit before I started. I had never used a typewriter and quickly learned by necessity. The “hen scratch” is still there, but my typing sustained me through a 26 year police career and many thousands of freelance articles on hunting and fishing. We do what we have to do but the importance of fundamentals can not be underestimated

  7. This trend is terrible. An article in the Harvard Medical journal predicts that with all this fertilization going on, intercourse may also be on the decline. A very slippery slope.

  8. Great post, Dan. Much food for thought, especially as my grandchildren approach that time when they would be starting the “old school” writing regimen. Had never considered the fine motor skills aspect, but have noticed that my own handwriting does not flow onto the paper as easily as it did — once upon a time.

  9. It actually causes real problems when kids have to take the two-hour writing portion of the AP English tests; if you haven’t really learned cursive, you write much more slowly and with less comfort. Additionally, I think you write differently when you write longhanded — I’d be willing to bet your brain operates differently — so if you’re used to doing your thinking with a computer, the nature of the writing changes when you’re forced, infrequently, to write longhand.

  10. My 10 year old’s new school requires that he learn cursive. He can write his papers on his laptop, as they want to make sure his ideas and connections come out of his head as easily as possible! They grade him on content not aesthetics. They also give him cursive practice twice a week for homework. Why? For the act of connecting and developing his left and right brain, teaching eye hand coordination …..and….So he is prepared for taking his SAT’s!

  11. I miss the fountain pens and cartridge pens. One thing I’ve noticed is that since computers became ubiquitous, my handwriting has gotten worse. Has anyone else noticed that?

  12. I always got my worst marks in penmanship. I just didn’t have the coordination. We learned the “Palmer Method,” and were expected to be precise. In fact, we had transparent cards that we’d place over our writing to see that it was exactly the same. My handwriting improved when I learned to hold my pen more firmly — differently than we were taught — and developed my own style. A thousand years ago, when I was in grade school, we were not permitted the luxury of individual expression.

  13. Loretta Hallock

    I remember Miss Mansir. Long time ago.

  14. Watching the nuns write on the blackboard was like seeing art expressed. So straight and level, so perfectly formed. Soon typing will disappear, a victim to voice recognition.

  15. Actually, most kids at Staples still use a notebook and paper to take notes in class because its faster. And most don’t bring laptops to school cause they just need a phone to text each other. But you’re right, their writing skills suck.

    • My observation is different. There are MANY laptops at Staples — I see them being used often for schoolwork.

      • Yes, for writing assignments,research, photos, etc but not so much so for taking notes during class. Scribbling is still faster!

  16. Fifteen years ago, when my parents moved out of my childhood home and we cleaned out the basement and the attic, we found all my old report cards. From first grade on, my worst marks were always in penmanship. And they were worst by a long distance. After taking a drafting class in junior high, I switched to printing in all upper case letters, but that was no more legible to anyone, including to me. I learned to type in high school, or I would probably still be there. I’ve been accused by co-workers of writing with my feet, and in over 30 years of work, I’ve only had one assistant who could read my handwriting: she was a godsend, or perhaps a goddess.

    But I wonder if Ms. Mac is right, and the brain works differently when you are writing by hand than when you are typing. Doesn’t necessarily mean one is better than the other, and different people would likely benefit differently, but I’ll bet it would be an interesting topic for some grant-seeking university researcher.

  17. The Dude Abides

    I am not sure whether this blog article is about the ability to write cursive or the ability to write??? While I excelled at penmanship (eventually to become a “printer” in life), I was not so great at anything else. My daughter went to a very expensive (yes $$ are a factor) private school and was hardly able to write an essay freshman year. We both ended up attorneys who were taught in law school to write freehand in a manner no one can ever read! And thus, the enigmas of life. Very hard to generalize. This blog has shown me that many “Zipsters” can write like Hemingway in 11th grade while others only have the ability to text poorly while driving.

  18. mary ruggiero

    As a former teacher, I can attest to the proven theory that much learning is assisted by handwriting – it is yet another path into the brain and aids memory as well. Kinesthetic learning. Our students don’t memorize nearly as much as we did – those great quotes from the classics are suffering neglect. “The quality of memory is not strained… “

  19. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Chicken scratch, you write like a five year old, your left handed, that’s how you write, hand cramp, actual hand pain, and I can’t read that. These are the critiques, descriptions, and overall commentaries I have had all my life. My father lovingly even said once, “what is that!!” and I said, “my signature, why?!”… As much as I agree handwriting of any kind is becoming a lost art… I think in my case thank goodness for modern technology, because you would all go blind or curse at me if I wrote this freehand.

    • The Dude Abides

      RLS: Don’t feel bad, we still love you. Out of pure curiousity, how was your brother’s (the genius) handwriting??? See if their is any correlation between brains and handwriting?

  20. A far cry from the Palmer method our parents (everyone over 75) were taught.

  21. Dez in Michigan

    My 10 year old son is ADHD. He has such a wonderful imagination but if you ask him to sit down and write it down, not only can you not READ it but he cannot get his thoughts on the page. It takes SO much for him to physically write it down that his 4th grade teachers have decided that he can type out his assignments on the computer.
    They are also not even TEACHING cursive writing in class. He brings it home to work on.