We've been having discussions at school this week about what poor handwriting most students have. I've had this discussion at other schools and with friends who teach in other states, so I know it isn't even a regional problem. Many believe good penmanship is one of those things we are sacrificing on the alter of technology. But I think that's a fallacy. It's convenient to blame typing and texting for our failure to write legibly, but I think the problem is actually much more complicated.
I think the origin of the problem lies in our need to push our kids into writing without any preparation. I remember spending hours making curves and swirls and lines and loops during penmanship lessons. Now I hear parents proudly exclaim that their three or four year old can "write his name". What the child can actually do is make something that reasonably approximates their name, but is neither correct in process nor form. So what I get in kindergarten is a child who writes his name in all capital letters, forms an O by starting at the bottom, dots his i with a circle, and makes a Y by writing V and adding a line on the bottom. This comes from a combination of convenience and personal style.
Most parents teach capital letters because it is easier and they don't have to deal with the confusion between p/b/d and i/j. And they don't think it matters if a child writes from the "bottom up" or "top down" as long as the result is readable. Maybe it doesn't...now. But the transition from printing to cursive is much more difficult for those children who have learned an unconventional writing process.
Style problems come from the fact that our handwriting evolves over the years into what fits our age, our hand, our personality, and our occupation. If you put a line on top of your J, or make Y with a V and a line because that's the way your generation was taught, or you make a circle or heart over your i because you thinks it's cute, then you pass on writing habits to your child that may not be accepted in their classroom. Regions, districts, and schools have adopted different handwriting styles- Manuscript and D'Nealian are the most common, but there are others. D'Nealian is very different and many adults aren't even aware that it exists. If you are teaching your child to write in one style and they will actually be taught the other style in school, you are just setting them up for frustration.
I think children are better off if you don't try to teach them to "write" before they start school. Instead they should just be taught to make those pretty curves and swirls and lines and loops that lead to control and finger strength. Sure, if you leave them alone they will try to make their own letters and marks and copy a few things. But they won't have the idea that there is one way to write- their parents' way.
Of course the bottom line is that none of this really matters. I try to save my students some grief by teaching them the handwriting method accepted by my district. I try to save you parents some grief by giving you advice that will make your children better students. But over the years I've come to realize that handwriting style is as personal as hairstyle. No matter how or what you are taught as a child, your adult handwriting somehow evolves into a reflection of you. You change a letter here and a stroke there and pretty soon your handwriting is a distinctive as your fingerprints. If you haven't thought about that, Google "handwriting analysis".
Perhaps future generations won't write at all. Maybe typing and texting will replace handwriting. Until then, handwriting will be a problem for students because schools and parents have expectations. It's just like anything else- you learn the basics and follow the rules until you reach a point where they don't matter and you are allowed to do things your own way. Maybe handwriting itself doesn't really matter- but the life lesson learned is vital.