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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
An upper level language arts class at Reid School in Salt Lake City practices writing the cursive letter "l" on Friday, September 9, 2011. Many schools across the nation are spending less time on teaching penmanship.

PROVO — At the beginning of the school year, Lance Vandermark asked his second grade class what kind of handwriting they wanted to strive for this year.

Did they want to have cruddy kindergarten penmanship or write like sloppy second graders?

One boy said that he had a brother in college, and he wanted to have handwriting like his.

Now when the students turn in their final writing drafts, Vandermark asks if they think they used their "super-neat college handwriting." If not, he has them practice certain letters again.

"They think it's a blast and it gets them focused on how they are writing," said Vandermark, who teaches at Sunset View Elementary in Provo.

But over the years, schools have focused less on handwriting. Most early-grade elementary school classes spend 25 to 50 minutes on handwriting instruction a week — as much as some schools used to spend every day on penmanship, said Kathleen Wright, national product manager at Zaner-Bloser, one of the nation's largest handwriting curriculum publishers. Schools have more pressure and time constraints due to the emphasis on high-stakes testing ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, meaning there isn't as much time to focus on handwriting.

Some schools have already given up on teaching cursive and more may follow in the coming years as the new state-led Common Core standards, set to be implemented by 44 states (including Utah) in the 2014-15 school year, do not require students to learn cursive and do not mention handwriting as part of the curriculum at all. Currently, the Utah curriculum does specify that students should learn how to write legibily and fluently.

Research has shown that learning to write letters by hand is an important part in language development and helps children learn how to read faster and better, said Karin Harman James, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who has done extensive research on the topic.

The demand for students to know how to write well remains, as 80 percent of the work students do in the classroom is still done by hand, said Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University.

Advantages to handwriting

Earlier this month, students at Reid School, a private school in Salt Lake City, sat down and practiced their handwriting skills. Kindergartners practiced writing the lowercase letter "r" and corrected their teacher when she modeled the letter and wrote it too tall or backwards. Students in the upper-level writing class practiced writing the cursive lowercase "l".

For the first three weeks of school, preschoolers through eighth-graders practice their letters for at least 45 minutes a day, said Ethna Reid, director of the school. Reid has had parents who can't believe the difference in their child's handwriting after just a few days at the school.

"Handwriting is so important nowadays," Reid said, adding that it helps children develop good critical thinking skills. "The better the handwriting, the more you write, and the more you write, the more you think."

Learning to write by hand is especially important in the early years, said Harmon, who is known in the linguistic world for her brain-imaging study on children.

Her studies have shown that manually printing words as compared to typing letters and words has different effects on the brain. Actually forming the letters on paper activates the portions of the brain that help with letter recognition and reading.

"Printing helps children to be able to identify letters and identifying letters is the highest predictor of reading success," Harmon said. Subsequent studies have shown that learning to write while learning to read helps children read better and faster than just learning to read without the writing component.

Better handwriting also generally equals better grades, said Graham, with Vanderbilt University.

Without changing the content of a paper, he found that if you take an average-graded paper and improve the handwriting students scores go up significantly, while if the same content is sloppily written, the grade goes down.

High-schoolers may want to take particular note as both college entrance exams, the ACT and SAT, added a writing portion to the test six years ago.

In a recent study of second- through sixth-graders, Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, also found that when composing longer essays, students wrote faster, longer and more in-depth pieces when they wrote by hand than when they typed on the computer.

High stakes testing

Reid has noticed at English teacher conferences over the last few years there has been an increased awareness of penmanship. Yet many teachers tell her that they don't have time to teach handwriting like they used to and the future does not look promising.

The new language arts portion of the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative to create more rigorous standards for primary and secondary schools, will focus on teaching writing modes like narrative versus opinion, and traits of writing like word choice and how to generate ideas, said Paulson, Provo School District's literary specialist. Handwriting is not mentioned in the standards, and she believes teachers will subsequently take less time to teach it.

"One of the challenges we have is we are asked to teach more rigorously and (to teach) more content," Paulsen said. "We have to prioritize. I want kids to be able to handwrite well, but I don't think the U.S. is doing worse than other countries in international testing because we have poorer handwriting. It's in critically reading text and higher level skills that we need to focus on."

Some states, like California and Massachusetts, have decided to add cursive into their Common Core curriculums. Most states like Utah have not chosen to do so, but people like Vandermark and Tricia Bromka, Granite School District's K-3 literacy Coach, believe cursive and handwriting will still be an important part of the learning process, though perhaps more integrated into teaching higher learning skills.

Technology's effect

Technology may also be playing a role in the demise of handwriting.

Students hardly see their parents write anything by hand anymore, said Wright, with Zaner-Bloser. Students, too, text, instant message and type on the computer more and more.

Berninger has studied students' handwriting for years and noticed in the most recent batch of samples she analyzed that penmanship has become sloppier and students make more errors.

Berninger isn't sure if this is because the samples came from a schools that focus less on penmanship or because more schools now have students write their final drafts on the computer. But technology is set to play an even bigger role in students' lives in the future.

ABC News reported earlier this month that more than 600 districts in the U.S. have bought iPads for at least one classroom, and two-thirds of these districts began using iPads this year. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Education launched a partnership entitled Digital Promise to bring new technologies to the classroom.

And while the new Common Core does not call for penmanship instruction, it does mention keyboarding as a vital skill.

Even teachers are less attuned to teach handwriting — Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt, found that just 12 percent of teachers learn how to teach penmanship in college.

Most researchers do agree that both handwriting and keyboarding need to be taught to the upcoming generation.

Wright compared learning to write by hand to learning to walk. Although technology has introduced computers and keyboards along with bikes and cars, the formative types of these skills are still important today.

Wright's company recently came out with an app for the iPhone that helps students learn how to write out letters by hand. And Berninger is currently working with the computer science department at her school to figure out optimal ways to combine handwriting and tablet and iPad technologies.

Back in Vandermark's class, his students get to show off their "super-neat college handwriting" every Friday during share time. His school has Smart Boards and laptop carts and iPads available for the students as well. And while Vandermark said he is part of the "technology bandwagon," he still plans on teaching his students good penmanship until told otherwise. Students with neat penmanship at the end of the year, will even get to learn how to write their names in cursive.

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com