[Homestead] Education---a lot of it is best taught by grim repetition

tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Sun Feb 6 12:54:22 EST 2005

Especially handwriting.  There is a close correlation between good 
handwriting, scholastic achievement and some rise in IQ.  For any speed 
and accuracy it is necessary to hold a writing instrument in flexible 
fingers, not in a fist.

The Boston Globe
A change at hand
After years of neglect, penmanship makes comeback in


By Paysha Stockton, Globe Correspondent  |  February 6,


At a large, circular table in a kindergarten and first-

grade classroom, a girl in pigtails writes about singing,

using a pencil to fill the wide lines in her notebook with

careful print.

At a table nearby, a first-grade boy makes only one ''s"

backwards in his notebook, while a kindergartner, perched

on a red rubber ball, practices his name with a

''squiggly" vibrating pen.

Every day, Geralyn McLaughlin gets her students at Mission

Hill School in Roxbury to write for about 40 minutes. On

Wednesdays, occupational therapist Deb Baye helps out,

working with children on letter formation, grip, and


The focus is efficiency and ease, not perfection, with the

teacher and Baye emphasizing the foundations for

functional, legible handwriting.

Children who don't learn to write correctly at a young age

often never will, say teachers and therapists working to

make sure handwriting doesn't become a dying art. They

fear that handwriting is becoming a casualty of the

widespread emphasis on computers and the need to master

math and English for standardized tests. Teachers reported

that between 10 percent to 20 percent of children have

trouble with handwriting, said Steve Graham, a professor

at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who has studied

student handwriting.

Handwriting is making a slow comeback in some schools

after decades in which many educators shunned serious

penmanship studies. Tests, blamed in part for handwriting

instruction's decline, also are a part of the reason for

its return. This year, for the first time, the SAT will

require handwritten essays. Massachusetts, as part of its

MCAS exams, also includes handwritten essay questions.

Graders claim they require only that the essays are

legible, but specialists say multiple studies correlate a

neat hand with higher scores.

New state standards for fourth-graders pushed Newton

schools to rethink handwriting, said Barbara Golder, an

occupational therapist there. ''Before you had to write a

little essay on the MCAS, it was really getting to the

point where it wasn't emphasized at all," she said.

In recent years, teachers began referring more children to

her, Golder said. Many of the children, who were

struggling with fine motor skills, simply needed proper

instruction in handwriting, she said.

In local elementary schools, handwriting instruction

varies widely. Some districts, including Lynn, create

standardized systems. Some require widespread systems for

the entire district. Brookline, for example, generally

uses D'Nealian, a slanted script meant to transition

children to cursive easily. Natick, Needham, and others

use a system called Handwriting Without Tears, an upright

manuscript emphasizing correct letter formation.

Others districts, such as Boston, Cambridge, and Newton,

have no systemwide program, allowing individual schools or

teachers to choose their methods.

Time spent on handwriting also varies, but educators agree

the subject -- though it's gaining notice -- still

receives far less emphasis than it did years ago.

''Many schools are so concerned about these reading and

math scores and being on the failing list," Graham said.

''They've crowded the curriculum. Handwriting and writing

is not getting a lot of instructional time."

Computers are perhaps the most popular culprit in

handwriting's demise. And teaching colleges, which place

little emphasis on handwriting, haven't helped. Officials

at Harvard, Lesley, and Northeastern universities, and

Wheaton and Simmons colleges, confirm their teaching

programs don't emphasize handwriting. The result:

Instructors are uncomfortable with the topic, said Graham,

who surveyed 169 elementary teachers with fellow professor

Karen Harris two years ago.

Eighty percent of those polled said they received little

or no training in how to teach handwriting, and only 19

percent said they enjoy teaching it, he said. But 90

percent reported teaching handwriting. ''A lot of what we

picked up on was teachers teaching it on the fly, without

a regular program," Graham said.

While most teaching schools aren't teaching handwriting,

Bridgewater State College plans to begin focusing on the

craft. Professor Robert Sylvester recently identified a

disturbing trend: prospective teachers getting sloppy in

their own writing, said Nancy Witherell, elementary

education department chairwoman.

''He came to me and said, 'Our students can't write,' "

Witherell said. ''Their writing is not legible."

Sylvester plans to give his students a handwriting

assessment and may beef up handwriting instruction, she


Marty Guild, an occupational therapist who trained

Natick's elementary teachers to teach handwriting, said

she thinks the skill is regaining respect. ''We want the

child to be efficient . . . and be able to write with ease

and so it's legible," Guild said. ''In order to get that,

I think we need to reinstate a very good handwriting


Laborious handwriting creates other writing problems,

researchers Graham and Harris found.

A 1997 study of 600 elementary students indicated that

handwriting struggles can affect writing quality and the

amount of text children produce, Graham said.

Struggling to write also appears to interfere with

planning, coherence, and sentence structure, Graham said.

It's important to instill good habits -- a firm ''pincher"

grip, erect posture, and the ability to form letters from

the top down -- occupational therapists said. Watching how

children write is crucial, said Baye, who divides her time

between Mission Hill and other Boston public elementary

schools. Are they attempting cursive? Spacing letters and

words? Using the lines provided or creating their own

space? Making dark letters that may indicate posture


She said she feels like a detective, deciphering

handwriting for clues to what children are doing with

their bodies.

Parents should also monitor whether children write legibly

and correctly, said Olsen, who created a handwriting

program after her son came home crying over his

embarrassing printing.

Some teachers now accept poor handwriting, she said. ''Do

you know the ruin you are visiting on young lives with

your attitude?" she said, jokingly.

Olsen worries poor handwriting could create low academic

self-esteem and a dislike of school. For most, neat

handwriting still equals smart, she said. ''Handwriting is

a very visible, physical indictor of success," she said.

The write stuff

How parents can help children learn proper handwriting


Do it correctly yourself Children learn by imitation, so

make sure you are holding your pencil and forming letters


Don't give 3- and 4-year-olds pencils Let them finger

paint or use crayons, which develop the ''pincher" grasp.

Give young children broken pieces of chalk or crayons,

they'll have no choice but to hold the small pieces


Encourage good posture Make sure your child's feet are on

the floor and their arms can move freely wherever they


Read Show children the importance of communicating through


Sing Show children letters during the alphabet song. Sing

songs that use fingers, such as ''Itsy Bitsy Spider."

Draw Children who draw often write better.

Move Teach spatial words, such as under, over, top,

middle, and bottom through visual representations. Put one

hand under another, etc.

Offer small bites Encourage children to pick up small

objects with their fingers, such as tiny pieces of food.

This develops writing muscles and coordination.

Play Encourage preschoolers to use finger paints and

sponges to strengthen writing muscles and reinforce

coordination. Do activities that require two hands, such

as lacing, to build foundation skills and muscle tone.

Sources: ''Handwriting Without Tears," occupational


Paysha Stockton
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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