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Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
Julie Walker, center, and others participate in a Handwriting Without Tears workshop. The program shows educators the proper way to teach handwriting.

Penmanship has become a lost art in many of the nation's schools. But some experts say the skill is vital and are pleased to see trends slowly swinging back to spending more time on handwriting in the classroom.

Last month about 50 Utah educators learned more effective ways to teach the skill through the Handwriting Without Tears program.

Historically teachers used specially lined paper, pencils and a lot of repetition to teach good penmanship. But with the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum, teachers learn to use tools like wood blocks, puppets, songs and even dances to help students learn to write.

Handwriting experts said in the past year they have seen more attention paid to penmanship since the writing exam was added on the SAT tests.

Tara DiMilia, spokeswoman for Handwriting Without Tears, said only 15 percent of the nearly 1.5 million students who took SAT exams last school year wrote their essays in cursive, which takes less time.

But 85 percent of students who did use cursive had higher test scores than those who printed their essays.

Cathy Van Haute, an occupational therapist who presents workshops for Handwriting Without Tears, said with so much attention lately being paid to reading, math and passing standardized tests, students aren't being taught to write properly, and colleges aren't teaching future educators how to teach handwriting.

Ethna Reid, director of the private Reid School, said her school has always taught handwriting as a separate subject because the skill is vital in teaching students to read.

"It's an important skill because it creates visual memory and develops visual recall, which is critical for effective reading skills," said Reid. "Unless children recognize the differences in letters instantly, they are not going to be good readers."

Van Haute said that when handwriting is specifically taught, writing becomes a quick and automatic skill.

"And when it is an automatic skill, then all the attention is given to composing, to writing, to getting all their thoughts on paper," Van Haute said.

Reid said that in testing 14,000 to 15,000 students over the years at her school, teachers have found that poor visual memory is the most common reason students are having difficulty reading.

"They have to see and understand differences in letters before they can attach sounds to them," Reid said. "Reading is first a visual task and (handwriting skills) are very crucial if you are going to be a good reader."

Plus, Reid said data shows that the better students are in penmanship, the more they write. And the more students write, the more they are able to improve as writers.

Van Haute said studies also show that students who handwrite well do better in school because they have more confidence.

"It sets the groundwork for a child ... if they produce something that looks nice they can feel successful, and that is directly correlated with self-esteem," Van Haute said.

With the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum students are not taught letters in order but rather in groups relating to how they are formed — easiest ones first. The capital letters E, F and D are taught first because they are easier for children to learn.

A big part of the teacher training was learning how to break students' bad habits.

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Van Haute said it is important to teach students how to hold a pencil properly, because not all students start school having learned how to hold blocks or use crayons. Instead, their toys have been video games and computer gadgets.

Van Haute said the curriculum is aimed at helping teachers to lay down a framework for students to develop the handwriting skills needed.

DiMilia said program experts hold more than 200 presentations a year to teachers all over the United States, Canada and England.

Parents can find tips and activities for both preschool students and first- through fourth-graders to help develop skills at www.hwtears.com.


E-mail: terickson@desnews.com