‘Is this the writing on the wall? Mourning the loss of penmanship’

Jun 12, 2021
The days of primary school students hunched over desks and painstakingly copying rows of cursive letters are waning. Source: Getty Images

When I was tutoring ‘my sons’, the future of Australia, I sometimes regarded their handwriting, bemused. I guess that was my job as well, to amend their flawed handwriting. Even at Year 12 level, a student would present me with an essay full of scribbles, blotches, and barely legible sentences.

Maybe it is merely that these students are educated so much on a keyboard, on laptops, or computers, or communicating through texting. At the end of their Secondary schooling, these scholars have to sit down and write handwritten essays for three hours.

As teachers, or examiners, folk are used to interpreting a vast array of handwriting abilities. It must be stated that I tutored students who need a tutor. Maybe the rest of the scholars wrote beautifully.

When we were in primary school, one of the daily subjects was penmanship. First, we learned to print, using slates, with small pieces of chalk, easy to erase mistakes. Then we acquired either an HB or 2B pencil.

In Year 3 and beyond, we had to learn to write joined letters, or an early cursive script. For this we owned fountain pens, with replaceable nibs, dipped into ink wells sited in the old wooden desks. We used blotting paper. We had to write series after series of strokes, or circles, practising our letters, with joining bits. Heavy on the downstrokes, light on the upstrokes. Somehow, being a clumsy, I ended up with ink stains all over my hands and clothes.

I must say, my handwriting was never the best. The teacher would prowl around the room during penmanship, with a large ruler, and ‘tap’ (or smack), on the hand anyone who did not hold their pen properly.

When I attained about mid-secondary level, I was a good student, the resident nerd, whose teacher told me to write my essays and homework in print. This was because she could not understand what I had written.

So, I printed my way through the senior years of high school, always admiring my co-students with their copy books of well-coordinated perfect pages. Until I could type efficiently, I printed my university essays.

Then I became a teacher. Horrors! I now knew where my old teacher had been coming from, as they say. I had to teach handwriting, and decipher all illegible offerings. For example, did what looked like ‘bersketti’ mean spaghetti?

These days, I note some students cannot hold a pen properly, and can have issues reading their own handwriting. I can relate! What is the solution? Bring back penmanship in an already overcrowded curriculum, or have every exam response typed on a keyboard? What would you suggest?

What do you remember about learning to write? How could illegible handwriting be conquered today?

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