Is the pen still mighty in the computer age?

Though cursive may be on the way out, writing by hand still seems likely to have a role in the way we learn. Images: Handwriting samples, young and old

Your grandchildren may use a stylus on a tablet PC instead of a Bic on tablet paper, but they will continue to write.

That's because even in an era when elementary school students are adept at mousing and teenagers are fiends at text-messaging, some experts say that writing with a pen is still the backbone for teaching people how to read and learn facts.

The difference will be in how the characters are made.

Cursive writing is introduced as part of the English language arts curriculum at the second or third grade level in most states, according to James Miles, senior associate at the International Center for Leadership and Education.

But as states re-evaluate the standards that dictate to schools what students need to know --including the seemingly universal addition of requirements for computer literacy--there is a lot of discussion of whether cursive should even be taught. If it's removed as a requirement, many of today's new teachers, brought up in the computer age themselves, will probably decide against teaching cursive handwriting, said Miles.

"The teachers we have coming into the classroom now were born in the late '80s, so they weren't taught it. It wasn't a focus or priority for their teacher," said Miles.

While cursive skills may be waning, QWERTY skills are on the rise. Today's youngsters are probably better typists than their parents were as children, and perhaps even as adults.

Typing isn't even called typing anymore, what with the PC having as a Conestoga wagon. Now referred to as keyboarding, it's introduced as part of state standards for computer skills in the second and third grade.

Miles said that based on anecdotal discussions with teachers across the country, the average student exiting fifth grade can touch-type about thirty-something words per minute with fair accuracy. (For comparison, the United States Office of Personnel Management requires 40 wpm for "Clerk-Typist" positions.)

Cursive shouldn't be confused with penmanship, the act of writing with a pen or pencil. Printing is still one of the main teaching methods for reading and writing. Educators call it "writing to teach." Handwriting, which has evolved into a hybrid of script and print, should stay around for quite some time.

"If I go back to my generation, we did the Palmer penmanship (method), and you spent hours getting the tails and stems going the right way. That has gone by the wayside. Basically, what you do now is some form of cursive mixed in with some of the print so we don't necessarily have all our letters connected. The letters looks more printed than cursive and it's better for speed," said Miles.

The Palmer method--which should be familiar to many baby boomers, and certainly to their parents--is no longer the method of choice. Just as the number of television channels blossomed with the advent of cable, there are now over a dozen methods of handwriting put forth by various educational resources and textbook manufacturers.

D'Nealian, one popular method of handwriting taught today, incorporates some of the pen movement and style of traditional penmanship, but has fewer flourishing loops and looks closer to printing. Another cursive/print font called Handwriting Without Tears, emphasizes consistency and legibility, but does not dictate to students how the letters should be made with the pen.

Regardless of the variation, most cursive fonts taught today forgo the extra loops and flourishes of the Palmer method in favor of speed and clarity. Some of the companies selling handwriting programs also include European characters, a sign of the expected diversity that today's students will experience in the classroom and later in the working world.

"The Old English writing of calligraphy was a way of writing at one point. We got away from that to a more expedient way and I think this is just a progression," said Miles.

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About the author

In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.

 

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