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Handwriting a dying skill?

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By Becky Cassell, Editor

My 9-year-old daughter has better cursive handwriting than I do. She can also print better, when she takes the time.

Most of the time, my handwriting is a messy combination of cursive and print and, according to various teachers over the years, I've never been able to write the cursive "Q" or "Z" correctly.

And, apparently, there are so many other people who don't that the U.S. Postal Service complained that "Qs" were being read as "2s." As a result, the new handwriting books have tossed out the old-fashioned cursive "Q" and replaced it with one that looks more like ... well ... a "Q."

That's why a Time magazine article, "Mourning the Death of Handwriting," by Claire Suddath a few weeks ago caught my attention.

Suddath discussed the art - and the history - of handwriting.

"Nineteenth Century America fell in love with loopy, rhythmic Spencerian script (think Coca-Cola: the soft-drink behemoth's logo is nothing more than a company bookkeeper's handiwork), but the early 20th Century favored the stripped-down, practical style touted in 1894's Palmer Guide to Business Writing.

"Cursive started to lose its clout back in the 1920s, when educators theorized that because children learned to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way. By World War II, manuscript, or print writing, was in standard use across the U.S.

"Today, schoolchildren typically learn print in kindergarten, cursive in third grade. But they don't master either one. Over the decades, daily handwriting lessons have decreased from an average of 30 minutes to 15."

Last year in third grade, my daughter had beautiful cursive on the handwriting lessons she brought home. Actually, her older brothers did, too, on those same papers they brought home in third grade. Of course, they've gone back to printing for nearly everything and will even print their signatures unless given advance warning not to.

Most people's signatures today aren't much more than a scrawl of loops with a recognizable letter here and there. That's much different than in the days of our handwritten historical documents in which beautiful handwriting was the norm.

Most doctors have notoriously horrid handwriting, which Suddath says has caused thousands of deaths a year because of illegible handwriting on patient charts and prescriptions.

The gazillion reporter's notebooks I've filled over the years are crammed with my barely legible cursive/print combination.

I remember taking a shorthand class in college. I still use some of those symbols today when I'm taking notes in a hurry. Do they even teach shorthand anymore?

Suddath says there are several reasons for the decrease in the attention given to the importance of handwriting.

Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo professor and the author of a history of American handwriting, told Suddath that schools today are teaching to the tests.

"If something isn't on a test, it's viewed as a luxury."

In other words, Suddath wrote, schools don't care how children hold their pencils as long as they can read.

Another contributing factor, she says, is today's age of social networking, with its e-mails and text messages, chat rooms and blogs - none of which are handwritten.

So handsome penmanship is headed the way of the dinosaur? Let's hope today's kids don't forget how to sign their names.