What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades – NYTimes.com


I never really thought much of penmanship as a child growing up. My competitive parents have told me how great it was to be a doctor, etc. etc. And one thing I always remembered was my mum making a point to say how poor doctors’ handwriting generally tends to be. Ironically my parents had good penmanship. They grew up in the 50s (yes my parents were quite old when they had me) and perhaps it was the sort of schooling they had in those days, but they wrote in impeccable cursive, in their own different styles, and always in ink pen, and they never ever made a single mistake when writing.

As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s in Singapore, I was taught handwriting (and cursive) but only up to about 9 years of age. After that it was write however you want, as long as it was legible to the teacher. But still most of our school work had to be handwritten. We had IT lessons once a week for nearly 2 hours at a time, in my secondary years, but that was it. For any other subjects and indeed, for all of our exams, we had to write. Loads. Especially for someone like me who was often very wordy and verbose, writing up to 5 pages of A4 foolscap paper for my English essays, that meant my hands and arms were very sore after any English exam. But it was worth it, because I always scored well and I LOVED to read books and write essays. Very geeky side of me, but that’s just how I was.

Despite having to do lots of handwriting (and making sure they are legible so I don’t lose marks in exams for illegibility) my handwriting just wasn’t pretty. It was quite ugly. I know it was because over the years, various adults have commented on it, including the school bookshop auntie, when I had to write my name down for her to order me a new school name badge! My parents never did mind because they think pretty handwriting is unnecessary. And I never thought to improve it myself because I just cared about the content, not the handwriting, and also because I took my parents’ word for it somehow – that penmanship was trivial.

When I got to my late teens and it came time to decide what I’d like to major in in tertiary education, I became very rebellious and went against my parents’ wishes of having me study law, business, medicine (or any of the more “worthwhile” i. e. money and status subjects). I decided to do graphic design at an art college instead. While this decision proved to be disastrous for familial relationships, I learnt for the first time the importance of penmanship.

I had this art lecturer… he was a famed Singaporean artist and very well-respected. Anyway so, he once set us an assignment complete with design brief. Design briefs were handmade booklets at the time, completely hand-drawn and handwritten, that explained the thought and design process behind the finished product – the artwork. He was very brutal with the way he marked our work. He usually did this in class with everybody present. He’d get all of us to put our work on this very big table of his. He’d then walk around that table inspecting and looking at the work. If he didn’t like something, if he thought it was too poor in standard, he would destroy it right away in front of us. I saw him use a craft knife and chopped up someone’s handmade clay vessel into half because it was shoddy work. He tossed a few people’s design briefs and artwork right across the room in anger. Mine was one of them. He even said “You call that handwriting?!” before he tossed mine.

After the lesson, we would go collect our artwork. I went to pick up my design brief, which was tossed. Others went to pick up theirs. The ones that didn’t get destroyed or tossed by the lecturer were glad they didn’t have to redo theirs! I’m aware that this sort of teaching would only really be acceptable and even remembered fondly (we all still are fond of that teacher) in an Asian context! But yes it was from that day that I realised I really wanted to fix my handwriting. I wanted to make it pretty. And since I can draw quite well, I started looking at forming my handwriting the way I would draw a picture. I would focus on the curves and lines of the letters I was writing, making sure they went where I wanted them to go, and that it looked nice.

Eventually my dear teacher, Mr. Iskandar, approved of my handwriting. I remembered being so pleased. I wouldn’t say I write beautifully now, all of the time, as for me, writing beautifully is still something I have to put conscious effort into. After the art college stint, I attended a red brick Uni in England, studying a humanities subject, which didn’t require pretty handwriting. Once again, content is more important (as tends to be with academics), so my handwriting reverted back to it’s old shoddy ways of high school again.

But when I want to write nicely, I always did. I have developed a respect for beautiful penmanship. I still admire my parents’ beautiful handwriting even though they seem to think it worthless. I wanted my children to be trained to put more effort into penmanship too. It is not worthless.

As for this article, well I totally agree that writing notes in conjunction with learning reinforces memory of learned concepts. I wrote copious amounts of notes during my secondary and university years and I can attest to the usefulness of writing things down, even if I didn’t read the notes again afterwards.

And beautiful penmanship? Well it’s nice to have. It’s kind of necessary … one needs to have legible handwriting for their handwriting to be useful, but when one can do beautiful handwriting, well it creates a very different and positive impression compared to shoddy writing even when the content is good. It shows you care about the finer details and you have an eye for beauty. Beautiful handwriting is like an art. And art is not worthless.

I get my kids to practice handwriting everyday. And yes I start teaching them cursive from about 8 years of age. And encourage them to write in cursive once they can write in cursive, but that’s because my kids, like me, find penmanship a little trickier and have to put in conscious effort to beautify it. I find that if they (or I) write in print, they tend to write very shoddily, even if it’s still legible. But if they are asked to write in cursive, their handwriting improves. Cursive has a way of drawing the attention to the aesthetics of handwriting. It could be because of having to focus on how to draw the curves and lines to make the writing “flow”… but I think it’s good. It’s also somewhat linked to the skill of drawing I’d say.

I hardly ask the kids to type out work they do. They can type alright. I know because they love Minecraft and when they’re playing in server mode with other international players, the environment is kind of like a continuous online chat going on and they have to type pretty quickly in order to get a word in with the conversations. So typing itself is, I would say, not really a skill they are lacking and not one in which I would like to focus on.

But handwriting? I get them to produce all their work in handwriting and I would tell them if I think they could try a bit harder to improve their penmanship, and they would try. I also encourage them by giving them stickers for handwritten work if the handwriting is good.

And of course, I still remember my old art lecturer who told me my handwriting was crap. I remember him fondly. He recently had an art exhibition in Singapore, but I wasn’t able to attend. Would love to see him again some day.


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