, Salem, MA

April 6, 2013

Handwriting at risk in schools

By Bethany Bray

---- — If John Hancock were alive today, would he trade handwriting for keyboarding skills?

It’s a question for debate even here, in the home state of the founding father whose elegant script on the Declaration of Independence has made his name synonymous with “signature.”

And it’s a question faced particularly in local elementary schools, as computer skills take more and more precedence over penmanship.

Richard Giso, a first-grade teacher at Bates Elementary in Salem, says learning handwriting is a critical building block to student literacy. However, he understands the flip side of the argument, having taught fourth grade, where computer skills come more into play.

“I’m not too sure I’d be comfortable with my first-graders keyboarding if I haven’t seen them write a sentence successfully,” said Giso, who is also an instructor at Salem State University.

“(Older students) need to know how to type just as quickly,” he said, “but also need to know how to write their name in cursive in this information age. Taking notes at the college level could mean taking out their iPad.”

The debate comes as states across the nation begin to adopt the so-called “common core” curriculum standards. While the elementary guidelines require English, math — and computer keyboard — proficiency, penmanship is not included.

Massachusetts, however, is among a handful of states that have added a handwriting requirement to the standards, though it doesn’t specify whether it should be proficiency in printing or cursive writing.

Some see it penmanship as a waste of time, an anachronism in a digitized society where even signatures are electronic. But others say it helps kids hone fine motor skills, reinforce literacy and develop their own unique stamp of identity.

Louise Swiniarski, a professor of early childhood education at Salem State University who supervises student teachers, says the focus on handwriting and cursive instruction varies from school to school.

For the early years, up to second grade, it’s “very necessary” that students get the tactile experience of writing. “It’s a stepping stone, part of the literacy process, and it’s how kids learn,” said Swiniarski.

But as children progress past second grade, “penmanship is giving out to keyboarding,” she said. “The importance of it kind of wanes as you go to the upper grades.”

“I have to say, even in my life, one of the most valuable things I’ve had was typing (class) in high school,” said Swiniarski. “I think keyboarding is essential and is probably going to replace the time spent (on penmanship).”

Fourth-graders working on a writing project “may not even pick up a pen,” Giso said.

“This is my 15th year teaching. I know what it’s like to be a student without a computer, but I also see students where that’s all they use,” he said.

In Giso’s first-grade classroom, penmanship is included as part of spelling and phonics lessons. Seeing, writing and saying words are all linked in the process of learning to read, he said.

“Letter formation is part of how we teach them to read. ... (Handwriting) is not taught in isolation,” Giso said. “It’s really important because the quicker they are able to form letters ... the more successful they’ll be in reading.

“Before they know how to read and write successfully, handwriting takes precedence over keyboarding,” he said.

Swiniarski feels it’s equally important for her student teachers to have good handwriting, as an example to their students. Even in this digital age, students see teachers’ handwriting on electronic smartboards.

“It’s a skill we do use,” she said. “There is a place for (handwriting) in teacher preparation. ... It’s important for them to master legible printing.”

Swiniarski is doing a research project on 19th century Salem resident Elizabeth Peabody, a pioneer in bringing kindergarten to the United States (and, incidentally, the sister-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne.) She’s been poring over handwritten correspondence between Elizabeth Peabody and English Poet William Wordsworth as part of her research.

Peabody’s exquisite handwriting changes to reflect the content of the letter, Swiniarski said.

“I just think penmanship is an interesting part of a person’s inner voice,” she said. “But I think it’s a dying art.”

Bethany Bray can be reached at and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.