Monday, September 21, 2009

More on handwriting

The Washington Post has an article, "The Handwriting Is on the Wall" about the death of cursive (not handwriting per se--thanks, Sisyphus, for making that distinction). Here's a snippet from p. 2:
In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.

But Graham worries that students who remain printers, rather than writing in cursive, need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT. Teachers may say they don't deduct for bad handwriting in class, but research tells another story, he said.

When adults are given the same composition written in good handwriting and poor handwriting, "they still give lower grades for ideation and quality of writing if the text is less legible," he said.

Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, according to the College Board.

I'm not as worried about the first statistic. First graders aren't college students, and by the time students have practiced some form of handwriting for 12 years, they're bound to get pretty good at it. Some people can print as fast as they can write (anyone ever teach engineering students? I rest my case), so that statistic may not hold true.

But what about the second part? Have you ever noticed a correlation between types of handwriting and the content of the work? Most people I've talked to who've graded a few thousand essays have formed some impressions, although they don't let it get in the way of assessing a paper. Maybe if everyone starts printing, those differences in scores will be erased--or maybe the advantage then will go to the fastest typists.

Also, will it become difficult for people who don't know how to write in cursive to read cursive writing?

Disclosure: the handwriting thing is hitting home for me because it seems to be going down the tubes just as I've gotten all interested in pens, inks, and paper. I've been trying to keep a notebook recording word counts, notes, page counts, information to look up, etc., and have been writing in it with my new pen. (I'm not obsessed yet the way some are, but I can spend far too much time here and here and here pondering the qualities of J. Herbin versus Noodler's Ink or Clairefontaine versus Moleskine notebooks. Okay, maybe I'm a little obsessed.)

6 comments:

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh, pens! my best, first (collecting) love! I have a scary collection of fountain pens... and I adore all the stores/items you link to...

Anyway, about the handwriting, I feel like this is a syllogism based on a false premise: that it's faster to write in cursive and that cursive is more legible. In fact, I've seen people argue quite convincingly that cursive is actually often *more* difficult to read than print (not because it's harder for people to produce, but the overlaps of all the loopy bits confuse the eye). What some people really want to see is the teaching of *italic* writing. (As in this book.) Myself, I never write in cursive and my printing is just as fast and probably more legible than my cursive (although neither are very legible these days for the reasons you mention...).

I do think that handwriting can give off a certain impression when reading exams and so on, but I think that kind of presumption can be overcome, at least for the most part. I've had beautifully legible handwritten essays full of nothing, and awful chickenscratches of brilliance. But honestly, this is where having students type exams would appeal to me.

(Oh, and have you ever noticed - because I have - some students, almost invariably women, whose handwriting starts out very neat and tidy and usually pretty, usually fairly upright on the page, and as they get into the exam, it gets messier, starts to slant to the right, and looks almost like a different hand? That always intrigued me.)

Ianqui said...

I just tried to write in cursive to see if I could even do it anymore. I guess I can, but it looks sooo childish to me. On the other hand, my normal handwriting is kind of a hybrid print-cursive mix, I just realized.

While we're on the topic of weird handwriting facts, have you noticed that people in some European and Asian countries have nearly identical handwriting to one another, whereas people from the US typically have very different handwritings? I wonder why that is.

undine said...

New Kid, I didn't know there was another pen collector in blogland! I had not seen that book on italic handwriting, but it seems a sensible way to write.

I've had the same experience you have with legibly handwritten essays that say nothing at all, so much so that at times I've gone overboard and given the benefit of the doubt (more than I should have) to the chickenscratch ones. Once I typed a couple of those out for use as examples, though, and saw how bad they were, I cringed: I realized that the bad handwriting was making me supply words, invent correct grammatical structures, etc. as I read them.

undine said...

Ianqui, I've tried a print-cursive mix, but for me it's not as fast as cursive (although it's more legible). Similarities in handwriting may have to do with the systematic way in which the writing is taught; although it may not be true today, there was a "nun" style of handwriting that seemed pretty consistent when I saw it on the papers from my friends in Cathollic school.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I spent three years as an AP exam reader, so that means I've read about 2,500 handwritten exams (in addition to the ones from my own students, of course). My general impression is that neatly-written essays are, on the average, somewhat better than untidily-written ones, BUT this rule of thumb gets dramatically reversed at the very high end of the scale; fewer than 1% of the essays earn a 9, which is the highest rating, and an unusually high proportion of those are nearly illegible. I have no idea what to make of this.

Also, I really hope this trend doesn't mean students will lose the ability to read cursive, because printing just doesn't do it for me if I need to write more than a few words, and I very much do not want to have to type all my comments on papers.

undine said...

Fretful Porpentine, that's really interesting about the highest-end essays. There must have been something remarkable about those that encouraged the readers to see the brilliance despite the bad handwriting.

Now you've got me wondering what flavor of bad handwriting characterized those essays, if there was a single kind (i.e., big and loopy, tiny and indistinguishable letters, etc.) If someone hasn't done a study of those exams from this angle, or at least an interview with you and others who've been through this experience, it ought to be done.