Handwriting: You can take it personal.
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L,
on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog
The goal of a handwriting instruction program is to guide the writer toward an efficient handwriting style that is both fluid and legible. Good penmanship is often defined by the level of proficiency the writer has achieved with the formations of letters, their proper placement on the lines and the paper, and the ability of the reader to interpret the intended message. But how important is good penmanship?
From One Perspective
In a review of Tamara Plakins Thornton’s book, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, Dyas Lawson reveals the author’s interesting perspective of good penmanship. It seems that Ms. Thornton had a “secret conviction that good penmanship does not matter, that if anything it denotes a person who is fearful or incapable of being in any way unusual.” She goes on to say that the belief that one’s personality is reflected in his or her handwriting leads us to consider that a penmanship style that conflicts with the impression of “what teachers would call good handwriting,” one that conforms to the rules and looks like the formations printed in the instruction workbooks, would be the “mark of individuality” (as cited in Lawson, n.d., para. 3). Yes, conformity is the standard of proficiency. An effective handwriting instruction program demands a regimented curriculum and can indeed appear to be conducted in a “militaristic” fashion, as Lawson described the A. N. Palmer methods teachers used in their classes. Lawson concedes, however, that although their practice began with the “issuing [of] commands: ‘Pens. Position. Circles’,” the teacher did “get results” (Lawson, n.d., para. 5). I have always considered the process of learning and mastering the skill to write letters to lead to the discovery of a comfortable and personalized handwriting style with which to convey thoughts, feelings, and knowledge efficiently. It seems strange somehow that an adult’s use of an individualized, nonconforming form of expression should be considered a weakness when it should be treated as a strength, a culmination of the years of practice and use of a handwriting style. If it’s legible, I consider it to be good penmanship. Why are we still judged by our handwriting? Perhaps the evolution of handwriting, the various places it has held in society, and its transition into a formal mode of communication has set the stage for this all-or-nothing standard for proficiency.
Some (a lot of) History
The birth of writing. Not long ago, formal penmanship instruction was considered to be a valuable school subject, one that was taught with as much rigor as reading, math, and science. But long before the introduction of standardized forms of handwriting that would serve as communication tools in every facet of life, cultures were concerned more about the basic need to exchange information to document their norms and histories. The earliest known form of communication presented in what we now call writing may have been cave paintings called pictographs and petroglyphs (paintings and incised pictures on stone, respectively) (Introduction to the History, n.d.). Sumerian cuneiform, written with a reed stylus, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, carved in stone or painted on papyrus, as well as early Kanji Chinese letter forms, are considered to be the origins of writing, providing people with “a codified system of standard symbols: the repetition of agreed-upon simple shapes to represent ideas” (History of Handwriting, n.d., p. 1). The pictographs and ideographs (a combination of pictographs used to represent ideas) used in these methods of writing provided people within those cultures an opportunity to record their thoughts and creative ideas, as well as document their histories, discoveries, and theories (History of Handwriting, n.d. p. 1) But not just any people.
These methods were specialized tools for communication comprised of many signs that took scribes years to master. Originally, hieroglyphics were used to present religious writings and scribes were valued and highly respected, ranking at the top of the social chart. Only those families with money could send their boys to school to learn this skill and those who were chosen to perform this task did not pay taxes, have to perform any military duties, or do manual labor. (Egyptian Scribes, n.d., para. 2) During the period before the invention of the printing press, handwriting skills were considered valuable rights that could enhance your life and prevent you from being “sent out into the fields to mow hay or to plow” (Saba, 2011, para. 6). Scribes dedicated their lives to produce books and manuscripts in monasteries and it is thought that each monastery had its own style of handwriting (Saba, 2011). Arnie Sanders, an associate professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore, reveals that “The real purpose of writing was to propagate the word of God, and to regulate the worship of God. That’s what kept handwriting alive, and why it was taught as a vocation” (as cited in Saba, 2011, para. 8). As writing continued to maintain its status as an important religious documentation tool, it is felt that the demand of a more expeditious and legible script most likely led to the creation of the alphabet (Introduction to the History, n.d.).
The journey of the alphabet. The Phoenicians developed a 22-letter phonetically-based alphabet that translated “ideographic writing to phonetic writing” (Introduction to the History, n.d., p. 8). This spread to Greece, where it was transformed into an alphabet using 24 letters, including vowels. This was later adopted by the Romans, who used 23 letter forms and additional consonants. This alphabet consisted of only capital letters, with a more informal script developed later that “was the earliest sign of lowercase letter forms, with ascenders, descenders and ligatures between the letters” (History of Handwriting, n.d., p. 3) and would be used to record transactions and conduct correspondence.
The invention of the printing press and the creation of the “very delicate type faces with many flourishes and curliques in [their] script-like letters” (History of Handwriting, n.d., p. 4) resulted in the production of aesthetic looking documents. The desire to emulate this style of print elevated the advantages of having an elegant handwriting style. Those who possessed one enjoyed a higher social status. It is felt that “it took the printing press to create a notion of handwriting as a sign of self,” (Atrubek, 2009, p. 3) slowly becoming a “form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication.” (p. 4).
You are your handwriting. At this point, handwriting had remained a somewhat personal skill, following prescribed alphabets but allowing for its presentation to be more class-based rather than conforming to a standardized format. Clerks, engravers, ladies, and gentlemen all produced handwriting styles that pointed to their individual stations in life. During Colonial times, a handwritten document could readily identify the writer’s “social status, educational level, and relative importance in society” (Lawson, n.d., para. 8) And although prominent figures in society, such as Benjamin Franklin, strongly supported good penmanship, only wealthy men were afforded the opportunity to learn it. Encyclopedias and books included entries to illustrate appropriate writing equipment and grip, as well as the proper seated posture for writing (Makala, 2013, p. 8), and reference volumes were printed to educate clerks or tradesmen on the written transactions used in business (p. 10). When training was finally offered to educate teachers as well as the general public on handwriting styles, it is evident that penmanship was considered a valuable and economically viable skill to sell. Documentation recorded in 1849 indicates that “100 writing academies [were registered] in New Hampshire and 272 in Rhode Island” (Kaminski, n.d., (section “Understanding Edison’s Writing”).
During this time, penmanship instruction books for students were being developed to encourage the advancement of specific handwriting styles. And handwriting styles became a topic of discussion among educators. When public education was established and formal methods of handwriting instruction were being developed during the early 19th century, the leaders in handwriting instruction began to consideration the relative benefits of a “synthetic method [of] teaching” versus a “muscular-movement” method (Doughtery, 1917, p. 281). This led to the debate over the importance of learning the individual stokes that formed a letter (synthetic) versus understanding the influence of the arms, hands, and fingers in the process of writing (muscular-movement). During the later years of that century, the elements of handwriting instruction that sparked concern in the minds of educators were not only the style of handwriting to teach and the method of instruction, but also the question of paper positioning and the desks that would facilitate its mastery. (Doughtery, 1917)
Enter Mr. Spencer. By the mid-19th century, those interested in developing an efficient handwriting system turned to a combination of the methods described above, with an emphasis on forearm movement included in the teaching of letter formations. Platt Rogers Spencer, considered by some to be “the father of American handwriting,” (Atrubek, 2009, p. 3) designed what would become “the first accepted American standard for learning penmanship” (Introduction to the History, n.d., p. 22). He built a chain of business schools to teach his script, believing that its mastery would “make someone refined, genteel, upstanding” (Handwriting is History, p. 3). The Spencerian method was a form of cursive that included “ornate and sinuous” strokes (Cohen, 2012, para. 3) and was quickly adopted by schools and businesses. Spencerian script was introduced and taught in schools from the 1860s to the 1920s (Handwriting is History, n.d.). Also during this time, the creation of a public school grading system led to the creation of handwriting books designed to fit the developmental needs of the students in each grade (Doughtery, 1917).
At this time, some handwriting masters thought that “vertical writing,” or one produced without a slant, would be a preferable style “based on superior hygienic conditions” (Doughtery, 1917, p. 283). I’m not quite clear about what Doughtery was referring to here; but I’m assuming that vertical writing produced in conjunction with vertical paper placement may have been felt to be more conducive to maintaining an upright body position to facilitate posture and to reduce eyestrain, for the author notes that neither of these were remedied by this handwriting practice. She further notes that vertical writing “was found to be inefficient from the viewpoint of speed and legibility and so was abandoned” (p. 283) at the end of the 19th century.
Here comes the point! The 20th century brought with it once again the demand for a style of writing that was more efficient in terms of speed and formation. The Spencerian method was thought to be “too slow, ornamental, and inefficient,” (Makala, 2013, p. 14) requiring the writer to lift the pen off the page, sacrificing legibility for speed. A. N. Palmer considered the Spencerian script to be less suited to the industrial age and created a “plain and rapid style” (Artubek, 2009, p. 3), the Palmer Method. In the late 19th century, educators adopted his regimented program that utilized his strategy for teaching letter formations first on a chalk board using large arm movements and then gradually reducing the size of the letter formations until the appropriate size was achieved on paper (Lawson, n.d.). (Sound familiar, OTs?) Dyas Lawson sums up the significance of the implementation of this regimented format for handwriting instruction succinctly:
“As typewriting had mechanized office communication, Palmer turned individual writers into machines – the social importance ascribed to handwriting had again transmogrified from an integral indicator of character to a disconnected musculoskeletal function” (p. 5).
Lawson does concede, however, that Palmer did provide an efficient handwriting style that was uniform and legible. The Palmer method was the “dominant tradition in American handwriting instruction from the 1890’s,” (Makala, 2013, p. 14) finally being unseated as the favored program in the mid-twentieth century. At that time, educators felt it was more advantageous to teach manuscript first to initiate children into writing instruction sooner, followed by cursive when manuscript was mastered (Atrubek, 2009; Makala, 2013).
But what does all of this history tell us about the relative importance of good penmanship and the relevance of an individual style of handwriting that defines us as a person and conveys our message in a way that no one else can? What does Thornton’s conviction in her 1996 book say about the insidious decline of handwriting instruction – or the importance of it – in our schools, where once it was considered so very important that children stood at chalkboards day after day learning to master Palmer’s plain and rapid strokes? What does the need for constant reaffirmation about the influence of learning handwriting formations on literacy development say about a culture that has prided itself as a leader in education, job growth, and innovation? When at one point, we felt handwriting proficiency was so important that scribes dedicated their lives to learning it, when only the wealthy were afforded the skill, and when your handwriting could identify your station in society. When, at a time not so long ago, those who valued handwriting feared that the typewriter threatened to take away the intimacy of self-expression that a handwritten document represented. Was Thornton correct? Is handwriting proficiency simply a way to shackle us to conformity? Or is it a learning tool that guides us to literacy? And a personalized mark that we leave as our legacy?
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
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Cohen, J. (2012). A Brief History of Penmanship on National Handwriting Day [PDF]. New York: A&E Networks. http://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-penmanship-on- national-handwriting-day
Dougherty, M. L. (1917). History of the Teaching of Handwriting in America. The Elementary School Journal, 18(4), 280-286. doi:10.1086/454610
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Makala, J. (2013, October 13). “Born to please”: The Art of Handwriting Instruction [PDF]. Columbia: Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina. library.sc.edu/spcoll/_current/Handwriting.pdf
Saba, M. (2011, August 26). Handwriting through the ages: An abridged history of English script [IRPT]. Atlanta: Cable News Network. http://www.cnn.com/2011/IREPORT/08/26/handwriting.history.irpt/