Some schools, teachers stressing penmanship again

jwarren@herald-leader.comOctober 8, 2009 

Good handwriting still stands out.

John Hancock's contributions to the American Revolution largely have been forgotten, with one exception: His large, flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence is still so familiar that his very name means "signature."

"Put your John Hancock on it," we say.

Roger Guffey, who teaches at Lafayette High School, has been bemoaning the decline in the use and appreciation of cursive writing. So, he recently had students in his four studies-skills classes polish up their penmanship by holding a cursive writing contest.

The best writers got blue ribbons; the best of the best each got a new fountain pen.

"Some of them didn't know what a fountain pen was," Guffey quipped.

That alone could be a symptom of cursive writing's decline. On those rare occasions today when we do pick up a pen, the emphasis is on speed, not style. So, a cheap ballpoint will do.

E-mail and text messaging are today's preferred forms of communication. Indeed, it's possible to go for weeks without writing anything in cursive.

Educators say generally that time devoted to penmanship in today's classrooms is shrinking because hard-pressed teachers are busy with other subjects. It recently was reported that the writing portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress soon will be done on computer.

But Lisa Deffendall, a spokeswoman for Fayette County Public Schools, said individual elementary schools are stressing students' cursive writing skills. Veterans Park and Rosa Parks elementary schools have particularly active programs, she said.

Guffey says a few students struggle with cursive because they have dysgraphia, a disorder that hinders handwriting ability. He also has noticed that many students print virtually all of their classroom notes and many of their answers on tests.

"They know how to do cursive writing, but they just don't use it much," he said. "So, over time, their skills erode."

With that thought in mind, Guffey had his students practice writing the alphabet in cursive, then move on to writing words and entire sentences in script. In the final competition, they had to write Hamlet's famous soliloquy and the preamble to the Declaration of Independence in cursive, and do it with virtually no mistakes.

"It kind of forced them to stay on task and improve their concentration skills, which is something freshmen in general struggle with," he said. "It also helps them learn fine motor control. They're really starting to see how beautiful handwriting can be."

Sophomore Seth Napier, 15, who won a new pen in the contest, said he had seldom used cursive writing since learning it in second grade.

"But it's something you really need to know," he said. "When you're an adult, you'll have to sign legal documents and things like that in cursive. Fortunately, I picked it up again pretty quickly."

Sierra Harr, a 13-year-old freshman who won a blue ribbon, also said cursive came back to her relatively quickly.

Freshmen Deandre Means, 15, and Tray Chester, 14, said they had to work at it.

"I hadn't written in cursive in a long time, so it took a while," Tray said.

Deandre wants to keep improving his penmanship.

"It's something I'll need when I'm older," he said.

And that's something you can put your John Hancock on.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.

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