April 05, 2020

Penmanship skills not impressive

When the amiable young doctor at the walk-in clinic wrote out a prescription for me to have filled at a local pharmacy I tried to stifle a grin, but couldn’t. That prompted the man to ask me what was so funny about the deal.

“I’m trying to figure out how you get ‘Apply three drops into right ear four times a day’ out of this?”‘ I replied, pointing to his hen-scratching on the prescription form. He laughed, then assured me that any pharmacist in the area would be able to fill the order and provide dosage instructions, all apparently having had sufficient practice in decoding his penmanship.

The incident seemed to confirm that old line that the reason pharmacists require so much schooling before they can be certified to serve the public is to decipher the scribblings of doctors.

A few days later I picked up the morning newspaper to find a Washington Post story that appeared to confirm what many people have long considered obvious: Thanks in large part to our love affair with computers, America’s penmanship skills are steadily going to hell in a hand-basket, and not a whole lot of educators seem to much care.

“The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it’s threatening to finish off longhand,” wrote Post reporter Margaret Webb Pressler. She reported that when handwritten essays were introduced on college preparatory exams for the Class of 2006, only 15 percent of the nearly 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive style, in which strokes of successive characters are joined and the angles rounded. The remaining 85 percent printed their work in block letters.

Sadly, these college hopefuls were just the first wave of U.S. students who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades, Pressler wrote. As a result, more and more students struggle to write cursive. And to read it, as well.

Harried educators argue that with all the other stuff that is expected to be crammed into the noggins of our budding young superstars these days they have to skimp some place, and penmanship instruction is a relic that seems a prime candidate to be heaved overboard.

A half-century ago, teachers commonly insisted on up to two hours a week on penmanship, and until the 1970s it was a daily lesson through the sixth grade. Now many primary school teachers spend 10 minutes or less a day on the instruction, according to the Post story.

That’s a huge mistake, say those who lament the loss of handwritten communication if for no other reason than its individualism and intimacy. Academics cite research showing that poor handwriting skills tend to make Johnny a superficial thinker. Scholars fear that the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research.

I can count on one hand the number of people I know who still write letters the old-fashioned way, using pen to put ink on paper, and I suspect that most readers can say the same. These members of a vanishing breed have been around the track a few times, long ago learning penmanship at the hands of the same taskmasters who insisted that they also have a solid grounding in phonics to help develop their reading skills.

For good measure, those teachers of old threw in ‘rithmetic to go with the readin’ and the ‘riting to complete the fabled “three R’s” troika once considered essential to a beginner’s education.

Without exception, the ability of my several pen pals to express themselves clearly and concisely is admirable, an indication of the lifelong benefits in perception, thinking and learning that the experts claim good handwriting skills can promote.

A teacher in Fairfax, Va., quoted in the Washington Post story said the teaching of cursive “is so low on the priority list that we really couldn’t care less.”

It is more important that her students pass their standardized tests, she declared. Near as she could tell, about the only place her students would be needing writing skills as adults would be in signing their names on credit card applications.

Too bad the kids are doomed to flunk that maneuver, too. Adulthood is certainly no guarantee that one can sign his name so it can be read by another human being, as any celebrity’s signature will show. Teaching kindergartners keyboarding while ignoring instruction in handwriting is not likely to alleviate this national malady a whole lot down the road.

But not to worry, I suppose. By then the prevailing wisdom may have us all signing our documents with an “X” so no one will feel unfairly singled out for poor penmanship.

NEWS columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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