The Death of Handwriting

As the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Philadelphia is America's unofficial capital of penmanship. So what happens in an age when cursive gets conquered by the keyboard?

HANNA IS SITTING ON a miniature chair at a sturdy table in the cheery second-floor Ardmore classroom of HandRIGHTing, Ink, clutching a pencil in her left hand. “Lefties are special to me,” Hanna’s private tutor, Sandy Purvis, says, watching closely as her pupil practices printing the letter K. “The karate instructor, Mr. Kim, is teaching Mrs. Kelly to make a K,” Purvis tells Hanna, tracing the downstroke. “He says to her, ‘Show me your best kick! Hi-YAH!’”

The kicker on Hanna’s K has dipped below the line on her ruled paper. Purvis, a trim blonde in black pants, a black sweater and a polka-dot scarf, grabs a toy fish. “Uh-oh! Here’s Sharkey! Who’s he coming to get? Who went below the line? Here he comes!” Hanna hurries to erase the errant letter part. “All right!” says Purvis in her soft, easy patter. “Give yourself two stickers for great work!”

Hanna’s in second grade. She’s been coming to see Purvis once a week since March. Her mom, who’s in the waiting room reading Jane Austen, pays $80 for each one-hour lesson. When Hanna writes, she wears a three-finger corrective gripper that holds her hand in proper position. “Hanna tried a lot of different grips and numbered them, then chose this one,” Purvis explains—number eight.

Hanna is done copying KICK and has moved on to UKELELE. “This is a long word,” she observes, staring at the page. It’s excruciating to see her work to form her letters; you ache to sit her at a keyboard. It’s like watching order fight to conquer chaos inside a seven-year-old. The natural, everyday relationship between mind and eye and hand seems much more complicated as she struggles with the pencil in her grip.

The Handwriting Without Tears program Purvis follows has three goals: that writing be legible, fast and pain-free. Not all her pupils are children. She’s worked with doctors—“I have a whole curriculum for physicians”—and also with Jaguar salespeople who want to pen more elegant thank-you notes to customers.

Parents who come to her have, she says, only one thing in common: They’re concerned about penmanship. Some sit and wait through a lesson; others say, “Fix my kid; I’m getting a manicure downstairs.” Some parents, particularly African-American clients from Philadelphia, Purvis says, value “fabulous” handwriting, and will work with their children every day.

You may be thinking your kid’s handwriting would have to be really, really bad before you’d pay $80 an hour to have it fixed. But everybody’s heard about pharmacists misreading doctors’ prescriptions with deadly results. And while a school essay on The Red Pony may seem trivial in comparison, research shows that the exact same words copied in good handwriting can raise a grade from the 50th percentile to the 84th; a sloppy, hard-to-read hand can drop it to the 16th percentile. In 2006, the first year the SATs included an essay section, only 15 percent of test-takers wrote cursive; their essays were graded slightly higher than those that were printed.

Which would seem to argue for keyboards to level the field: Why should Hanna’s ideas be judged more harshly because she has trouble handling a pen? But, cursive-lovers counter, what if the lights go out? What if there’s a giant earthquake? Don’t laugh—when the quake and tsunami in Japan wiped out TV, radio, e-mail, telephones, the Internet, even the printing press, the editors of the newspaper in the city of Ishinomaki had reporters write their stories on poster paper with black pens, made multiple copies of them by hand, and posted them around town.