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Penmanship Problems

May 2, 2006, 11:59 PM by Matt Belanger

Penmanship Problems
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They send text messages, type essays, and even take class notes on laptop computers. Today's tech-savvy students do very little handwriting, and seem to be more comfortable with a keyboard than a pen. But as a result, penmanship is becoming something of a dying art.

Each week, third grade students in the Sioux Falls School District spend a few hours working to improve their print and cursive letters. But they're learning a lesson that appears to be slowly getting "erased" by technology.

“Very seldom do we sit down with a paper and pencil when we have that computer or PDA, or cell phone there or some other piece of technology supporting our communication,” said Rich Myer, director of curriculum for the Sioux Falls School District.

He says penmanship will always be a part of early education, but computers are taking some of the focus away from practicing and perfecting handwriting.

“You'll see more of an emphasis on how to use other means to support communication as well,” Myer said.

Third grade is usually the last time students are taught handwriting lessons, and not long after that, they're learning how to type on a computer keyboard. But fast-forward a few years, and it's easy to see how bad handwriting becomes.

Greg Dyre teaches a creative writing class at the University of Sioux Falls. He says his students jot down some great ideas, but their handwriting needs help.

“It's not particularly good, but at the same time, mine is usually worse,” Dyre said.

Dyre says there are times he has to stop reading to focus on figuring out what his students have written.

“We as a culture, certainly our students, aren't used to writing by hand for any length of time and so when they have an exam, for example, and they have to write out two to four essay questions during an exam period, the fatigue in the hand and arm starts to show and what can already be challenging handwriting becomes that much more difficult,” Dyre said.

While some professors still ask their students for in-class writings, many students do most of their formal work on computers. So the opportunity to hand-write anything longer than a quick note is shrinking.

“I think we just don't get enough practice, or we don't get practice I should say,” Dyre said.

writing 3

When students do put pen to paper, it can be very difficult to read. Andrea Kirkegaard prefers to write using a computer, and judging by the look of her handwritten notes, it's probably better that way. When asked what grade she would give her own handwriting, she said, “It would be an 'F'. It's horrible.”

Kirkegaard says another part of the problem is the need for speed. Fast-paced college classes demand short cuts.

“I've got so many ideas going through my mind, if I don't write as quickly as I can then I don't get everything down,” she said. Kirkegaard says there are times she can’t read her own writing.

Dyre doesn't count off for poor handwriting in his class, and he says not all of his students are sloppy. But even as computers and other technology take some of the focus off of the written word, he says penmanship is--and needs to remain--an important part of scholarship.

“That impacts the reader's ability to understand it, and gives an impression of its quality whether it should or not on some level there's an impact,” Dyre said.

Besides, teachers can't know if the words are right if students don't know how to write the words.

About a year ago, a handwritten essay was added to the SAT exam many students take when they apply for college. The ACT test also has a hand-written section. And although it can make grading the tests a challenge, creators say poor handwriting does not affect a student's score on either test.

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