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Write or Wrong: The Death of Handwriting?

A literacy expert explains why good penmanship is still important in school. Yet most U.S. teachers consider themselves unprepared to teach it. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

Do American children still learn handwriting in school? In this age of the keyboard, some people seem to think handwriting lessons are on the way out.

We asked a literacy professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Steve Graham says he has been hearing about the death of handwriting for the past fifteen years. So is it still being taught?

STEVE GRAHAM: "If the results of a survey we had published this year are accurate, it is being taught by about ninety percent of teachers in grades one to three."

Ninety percent of teachers also say they are required to teach handwriting. But studies have yet to answer the question of how well they are teaching it. Professor Graham says one study published this year found that about three out of every four teachers say they are not prepared to teach handwriting.

STEVE GRAHAM: "And then when you look at how it's taught, you have some teachers who are teaching handwriting by providing instruction for ten, fifteen minutes a day, and then other teachers who basically teach it for sixty to seventy minutes a day -- which really for handwriting is pretty much death."

Many adults remember learning that way -- by copying letters over and over again. Today's thinking is that short periods of practice are better. Many experts also think handwriting should not be taught by itself. Instead, they say it should be used as a way to get students to express ideas. After all, that is why we write.

Professor Graham says handwriting involves two skills. One is legibility, which means forming the letters so they can be read. The other is fluency -- writing without having to think about it. The professor says fluency continues to develop up until high school.

But not everyone masters these skills. Teachers commonly report that about one-fourth of their kids have poor handwriting. Some people might think handwriting is not important anymore because of computers and voice recognition programs.

But Steve Graham at Vanderbilt says word processing is rarely done in elementary school, especially in the early years.

STEVE GRAHAM: "Even with high school teachers, we find that less than fifty percent of assignments are done via word processing or with word processing. And, in fact, if we added in taking notes and doing tests in class, most of the writing done in school is done by hand."

American children traditionally first learn to print, then to write in cursive, which connects the letters. But guess what we learned from a spokeswoman for the College Board, which administers the SAT college admission test. More than seventy-five percent of students choose to print their essay on the test rather than write in cursive.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. To learn more about handwriting research, and to share comments, go to I'm Steve Ember.