(Houston Chronicle) — Thirty-six years ago, a national trade group for makers of pens and pencils created National Handwriting Day, to be observed Jan. 23, the birthday of Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock. And then almost everybody, including its creators, forgot about it.
This year, Houston’s Art Guys will revive the celebration by signing their names for eight consecutive hours at downtown’s Julia Ideson Library. The result, they say, will be art.
Cursive writing, however, may be edging toward obsolescence, a victim of computers and changing educational standards. Indeed, cursive, a communication mainstay dating back at least 1,000 years in the English-speaking world, seems threatened as never before.
In 2007, only 15 percent of students completing an essay for the College Board’s SAT wrote longhand. In 2008, a national survey of elementary teachers found only 12 percent trained to teach cursive writing. In 2009, the Common Core State Standards, seeking to unify national educational standards, mandated elementary-level instruction in keyboarding but not cursive writing, leaving the decision to states and school districts.
Texas, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson, still requires cursive instruction for third- and fourth-graders.
In Houston Independent School District, those students receive 45 to 60 minutes of daily language arts instruction, including grammar, spelling, handwriting and word study, said Roberta Raymond, district reading curriculum manager. Students are taught block printing and simple keyboard skills in kindergarten and cursive in the third grade. By the fourth grade, they are allowed, at their discretion, to write in cursive or print.
The erosion of cursive’s domination of personal, written communication has spawned an impassioned Internet outcry from critics who foresee cultural collapse. Their hand-wringing, of course, is facilitated by keyboard, not fountain pen.
Steven Graham, a literacy and learning sciences specialist at Arizona State University, said research in the field is anything but clear-cut. “Whenever you talk to scholars about the research, the response is filled with ifs, ands and buts.”
Graham’s largest concern with student writing is not the method, but the content. He sees little difference in the merits of block printing and cursive writing.
“In a crowded curriculum,” he said, “if there’s one that’s taught well, I really don’t care which one it is. ... There’s a little bit of a paradox: If you look outside the schools, the majority of writing is electronic; in school, most of the writing is by hand.”
Katrina Gonzales, an eighth-grade teacher and president of the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts, said “brainstorming” by students should be emphasized more than the method of writing.
“Some constantly use technology, if they’re able to do it,” she said of her students. “Some use handwriting. I think it’s a personal preference. ... My son - he’s in my eighth-grade class - still uses cursive, but many of his peers print.”
Gonzales said even she alternates between cursive and printing.
Two years ago, she said, students in her West Central Texas classroom were provided with laptops. Now, she said, much of their writing is done on a keyboard.
“Young people born into the technological age are different from us,” said Marjorie Chadwick, a University of Houston English literature professor and director of the school’s writing center. “Whereas we learned to write cursively, and were continually criticized if our penmanship wasn’t good, that just doesn’t happen anymore. ... Today, cursive is not the norm, it’s electronics.”
Chadwick reported that 35 percent of her students print their final exam essays, and of those who write in cursive, up to 10 percent are illegible. Still, she conceded, sometimes the sloppiest writing is the work of the clearest thinkers.
Humans have been scribbling their thoughts in cursive for thousands of years. Egyptians wrote a connected hieratic script as early as the 2nd century; doomed Pompeiians wrote connected Latin script on the eve of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D.; English script was written before the Norman conquest in the 11th century.
“Nothing will ever replace the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word,” said David Baker, director of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. Admitting that communication via computer keyboard is growing, Baker insisted there has been no diminution in the sale of pencils and pens.
As for National Handwriting Day, Baker allowed that the holiday never gained “red letter” status on anyone’s calendar.
“I’m not even sure we designated this holiday,” he said. Then, after turning to a computer search, he corrected himself, saying WIMA created the holiday in 1977. “That was before I got here,” he said. “...We’ve stopped doing activities ourselves. Our members have programs that encourage handwriting and the teaching of cursive writing in schools.”
Artist Michael Galbreth said the planned Jan. 23 sign-in with his Art Guys partner Jack Massing is not intended as commentary on the future of cursive writing. Instead, he said, it will be an artistic rumination on the significance of signing one’s name.
The pair’s signatures, he said, will form a drawing. At the end of the eight-hour session, they will ceremoniously pass out pencil stubs to members of the audience. XXX - End of Story