The horror of Valentine’s Day cards

Before she had kids, Mrs. Lipstick thought assigning kids to make Valentine’s Day cards was a great way to encourage handwriting, basic literacy, creativity and parent/child bonding. Now, after helping her preschooler make and sign 25 cards, she thinks it’s parent torture.

Her daughter “discovered you could make a butterfly if you put a popsicle stick on top of a heart with a pom pom for a head,” writes Mrs. Lipstick. “That was a great idea if she wanted to make ONE valentine. But we needed 25.”

Once finished, her preschooler had to write her name on each card. It took “three evenings after school encouraging, cajoling, begging, demanding that she write her name in a legible fashion,” writes Mrs. Lipstick. “She may never write her name again.”

Mrs. Lipstick has taken a vow never to sneer at store-bought cards.

Computer use widens writing gap

group elementary school students in computer class Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study.  Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.

The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.

Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

‘To write is to learn’

Every Cleveland Browns player has a tablet computer — and a pad of paper. Coach Mike Pettine believes tells players writing by hand will improve their chances of learning complex plays, reports Kevin Clark in the Wall Street Journal.

As a high-school coach in Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001, Pettine learned “how to get students to study — whether for a pivotal third down or a geology quiz,” Clark writes.

“I would talk to teachers all the time and they would say, ‘To write is to learn,'” Pettine said. “When you write stuff down, you have a much higher chance of it getting imprinted on your brain.”

A study titled The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard backs the idea that students learn more when they write in longhand rather than taking notes on a laptop.

The study found that, because the hand can’t possibly keep up with the speaker’s words, the writer must rephrase what was said in his or her own words, which in turn processes the information at a deeper level.

Browns defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, who went to Harvard, believes handwriting is better than typing. “You are actively using your brain more,” Bryant said.

Should kids learn cursive?

Should schools require children to learn cursive? asks the New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog. The new common standards don’t call for cursive. Many think the keyboard has made penmanship obsolete.

Handwriting matters, but not cursive, writes Kate Gladstone, founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works.

The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree.

I do that! I didn’t know it was the in thing.

Children should learn to read cursive, but that “can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes,” once kids learn to read print, Gladstone writes.

At a 2012 conference hosted by a publisher of cursive textbooks, only 37 percent of  handwriting teachers wrote in cursive, writes Gladstone. Eight percent printed. A majority — 55 percent — combined print and cursive in an efficient hybrid style.

“Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring,” she concludes.

Writing in cursive stimulates the brain, argues Suzanne Baruch Asherson, an occupational therapist in Beverly Hills schools and a national presenter for Handwriting Without Tears, an early childhood education company.

. . . learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.

Let cursive die out, responds Morgan Polikoff, a USC education professor. “There is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching.”

Old school: Teach word roots, math facts and …

Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots), writes Annie Murphy Paul in Time. New researchsupports the effectiveness of “old school” methods such as “memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation,” she writes.

Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at an Ohio high school was required to teach Latin and Greek word roots, she writes in English Journal, though she abhorred “rote memorization.”

Students learned that “sta” means “put in place or stand,” as in “statue” or “station.”  They learned that “cess” means “to move or withdraw,” which let them understand “recess.”

Her three classes competed against each other to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.)

For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

I learned Latin and Greek word roots in seventh grade. It was lots of fun.

Drilling math facts, like the multiplication table, “is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math,” Paul writes.

Other valuable old-school skills:

 Handwriting. Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age five. . . .

Argumentation. In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. . . .

Reading aloud. Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves.

I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?

Bad handwriting foils bank robbery

Even in the computer age, handwriting can be important.  In New Castle, Delaware, a would-be bank robber wrote a note on a deposit slip demanding money. The bank teller couldn’t read the robber’s handwriting. She handed back the note and asked that it be re-written.

The suspect fled the bank.

Thomas J. Love has been charged with attempted robbery — and poor penmanship.

Handwriting helps the brain

Writing by hand is good for the brain, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.

. . . Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

“New software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to reinvigorate” handwriting.

I fill in crossword puzzles by hand, so maybe I’m getting an anti-Alzheimer’s twofer.

Motherhood also leads to brain growth, a study finds. New moms who gush the most about their baby’s wonderfulness show the most growth in brain cells.

Parents hire handwriting therapists

Affluent parents are hiring occupational therapists to help children learn handwriting, reports the New York Times.

In affluent neighborhoods in and around New York, occupational therapists have taken their place next to academic tutors, psychologists, private coaches and personal trainers — the army that often stands behind academically successful students.

Many grade schools no longer teach children to write legibly, reports the Times.  Teachers assume children can use a keyboard to write, but parents worry they’ll have trouble taking tests or doing math problems.

Some say children are asked to do more writing at earlier ages, but others say more children lack the fine and gross motor skills that used to be the norm.

Anthony DiCarlo, a long-time principal in a New York City suburb, blames changes in the way kids play.

“ in the last five years, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of kids who don’t have the strength in their hands to wield a scissors or do arts and crafts projects, which in turn prepares them for writing.”

Many kindergartners in his community, he said, have taken music appreciation classes or participated in adult-led sports teams or yoga. And most have also logged serious time in front of a television or a computer screen. But very few have had unlimited opportunities to run, jump and skip, or make mud pies and break twigs. “I’m all for academic rigor,” he said, “but these days I tell parents that letting their child mold clay, play in the sand or build with Play-Doh builds important school-readiness skills, too.”

Delayed development of fine-motor skills can make schoolwork arduous. The problem runs in my family, at least for males. My father almost had to repeat kindergarten because he couldn’t cut with scissors. He could read, so they let him go on. Writing letters or numbers was difficult and exhausting for both my brothers, who went to grade school before the personal computer — but, thankfully, also before the ubiquity of arts projects.

The computer keyboard is liberating, but it’s hard to do everything on a computer, at least with today’s technology. Maybe in the future kids will get tablets that can interpret their handwriting.

As with reading, there are some kids who will learn handwriting easily and others who need more instruction and practice. You’d think elementary teachers could be trained to help kids without having to call in occupational therapists.