YESTERDAY WAS THE birthday of John Hancock, he of the bold first signature on the Declaration of Independence. In Hancock's honor, it was also National Handwriting Day, so proclaimed by America's makers of pens and pencils.
"Though computers and e-mail play an important role in our lives, nothing will ever replace the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word," says Robert B. Waller Jr., executive director of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association.
Write on, Robert. Handwriting, however, is staging such a comeback after years of neglect that it hardly needs a boost from the pen makers.
Consider these developments:
Aware that poor handwriting by physicians is not a joke but a potential health hazard, several medical schools are teaching prospective doctors how to write legibly.
Public schools, many of which de-emphasized handwriting, are teaching it. Baltimore County requires all its elementary schools to spend daily time on handwriting instruction.
Cursive writing -- in which the strokes of the letters are joined in each word -- is seen as necessary for teaching children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
We're not talking aesthetics here. The fact that well-executed handwriting is pleasing to the eye is almost beside the point. Nor are we on a nostalgia trip, though all that goes with handwriting -- the feel of an ink pen, the thrill of a love letter, the note passed furtively in third grade, the diary -- can stir memories in most of us.
No, we're talking about the utility of handwriting, a third of the holy trinity of language arts with reading and spelling. "Handwriting allows us to assume ownership of the written word," says Charlotte German, third-grade teacher at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Glyndon.
"There is no point in writing or spelling words if you cannot read," adds Claire Telewicz, first-grade teacher at Sacred Heart. "Handwriting establishes connections for the little ones. If they never put their own thoughts on paper, they wouldn't see the connection between reading and writing, and they would never develop comprehension and critical thinking."
Handwriting can be seen as the physical side of reading. Because the first two R's are so closely linked, "handwriting problems are almost inherent" in children with the reading impairment known as dyslexia, says Alice Koontz, an authority on dyslexia who teaches at Jemicy School for dyslexic children in Owings Mills.
Reversing letters is the best-known sign of dyslexia, but there is more to it. "When our kids start managing the pencil," says Koontz, "they often have directional difficulty. Where to put the pencil down on the paper is sometimes a mystery to them. With cursive, they always start at the same place, on the line, and they know which direction to go."
Jemicy teachers refer to the "muscle memory" required for handwriting. They reinforce the skill by having pupils write in the air or in a pan of sand or shaving cream. If you don't think you have muscle memory, advises Mark Westervelt, head of Jemicy's middle school, try closing your eyes and writing your name in the air. Now try writing the symbol for the treble clef. See what he means?
Phonics and cursive writing go together, says Nan Jay Barchowsky of Aberdeen. Barchowsky taught handwriting for 17 years at Harford Day School in Bel Air and became so fascinated that she developed her own program, available on CD-ROM.
"If teachers don't know how to teach phonics, they sure don't know how to teach handwriting," says Barchowsky. This is because phonics requires knowledge of the combinations of letters that make up the English language. Cursive handwriting highlights those combinations.
Cursive is also faster than "printed" or "manuscript" writing, which consists of unconnected letters, requiring the writer to lift the pencil from the page after each letter. "For this reason, cursive speeds up the flow of thought," says German.
Like most schools where handwriting is taught, Sacred Heart weans children from print gradually as their motor skills develop in the primary grades. By the middle of the third grade, every pupil is writing in cursive.
Deverne Coleman, a third-grade teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Baltimore, raises another, very practical point about handwriting.
"I teach it because MSPAP [Maryland School Performance Assessment Program] is almost all handwriting. No one's ever investigated to find out how many of those poor scores from Baltimore City schools result from writing that can't be read."
As computers have taken over our lives, many an "expert" has predicted the demise of handwriting.
But there's a telling development in the high-tech world. For a fee, you can send samples of your writing to a company. In a return, you'll get a program that allows you to send e-mail in your hand.
Your handwriting digitalized. John Hancock would have liked that.
Pub Date: 1/24/99