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March 4, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: If handwriting is a window to my soul, I’m glad this is typewritten…

TERRE HAUTE — Somewhere in the mess I call my “archives,” I have most of my grade school report cards hidden away. I have kept them under wraps, because I want to be long gone when my children — or grandchildren — unearth them and discover that their self-righteous teacher of a dad was, in fact, a terrible student in his formative years.  

Without those damning bits of evidence available, I have been able to convince friends and family that I was on the fast track to being a Rhodes scholar, that I was president of the high school Rocket Club, that I actually discovered absolute zero fooling around on a notepad during grade school recess. But one thing is apparent: I haven’t been able to sell anyone the notion that my handwriting has ever been legible.      

I did find my sixth-grade card, and there in the gracefully looped cursive of my teacher, Wanda Thomas, was that ever-present C- in handwriting — a gift, I imagine, to help soften the blow for my mother, who was probably already depressed as she glanced through a litany of “unsatisfactories” and Ds. I am happy to say, however, that I did have near-perfect attendance, and I “respected the property of others.”

Despite the fact that my handwriting now appears to be the product of a hypertensive lunatic, I truly believe that teaching the formation of printed letters, then cursive writing, is critical to the development of any child, even one like I was. It seemed as though no matter how I held my tongue, I could not make a pencil work the way I wanted it to.  

With the advent of the new Common Core standards in Indiana schools, a path, I suspect, on which we shouldn’t be trudging, comes the de-emphasis of handwriting in elementary schools in favor of “keyboarding.” That decision has created a brushfire of criticism and concern. Indiana University neuroscientist Karen Harman James is one of those worrying. James, who may have been an actual Rocket Club president, is best known for the landmark research she’s conducted at IU on the importance of handwriting and the development of children’s brains.

“Printing is critical,” James told me last week, “because it is a fine motor skill. Fine motor skill acquisition is crucial for many aspects of cognitive development. For brain development, practice printing sets up the reading network that is used later during reading acquisition.”

In other words, James says that teaching kids to write by hand, even printing (her jury is still out on cursive), is critical to how children eventually learn to read. What appears to some as being a minor shift from early printing, and perhaps cursive writing, toward keyboarding, may have a major impact on how kids read and learn.

In a piece written for “IU Newsroom” last week, James, said, “We have recently shown that when children look at letters, the activity in parts of their brains becomes more like activity seen in literate adult brains, but only after they have had practice printing letters.”

Theresa Ortega is not a neuroscientist, but she is a certified handwriting analyst who has spent much of a lifetime fascinated by how our brains and hands work together to form letters. An administrative assistant in Indiana State University’s Student Recreation Center, Ortega also runs a private business and has lectured on handwriting analysis for years.

“Handwriting is brainwriting,” Ortega says, and like James, she is very concerned about students’ brain development as they grasp the digital world through a keyboard instead of with a pencil. Ortega made sure that I understood that handwriting analysis “can’t detect chronological age, gender, race, religion, or the future,” but it certainly can be revealing.

In a recent interview, Ortega said that she has analyzed hundreds, if not thousands, of young adults (high school and college aged) who told her that they were not taught cursive writing. More troubling to her, however, is “I find a very large group of students who are trending toward introversion, a lack of ability to express emotion, an inability to form relationships, and an inability to think critically and creatively.”

Ortega added, “This, of course, is being helped along by the technology that has invaded and permeated our lives… I think we need the connectivity of cursive writing to equalize the force of technology.”

Ortega volunteered to analyze my scrawl, a sample of which I donated with two exceptions: first, that she also analyze my wife’s handwriting, and second, that she not notify authorities if she were to find some sort of criminal or emotionally unstable tendency in my chicken scratches. I imagined that she’d find Joanie’s writing to be that of a humanitarian award winner, while mine would have me placed on an FBI watch list.

After assuring me that most people nervously joke about such things when they give her a handwriting sample, Ortega did, in fact, determine that my wife was very intelligent, seeks compromise, and is “down-to-earth.” She said that Joanie could be stubborn (no comment from me here), but that she “likes people to get along and be cooperative.” Her analysis was spot on.

As for me, Ortega hit it out of the park, too. She determined that I “liked to read,” so my early letter formation must have done its job in helping that part of my brain to develop. She said I am a “quick thinker,” but that I may also be “impatient with others who don’t think as quickly.” She also said I was “self-conscious,” “hard” on myself, and that I form what she calls a “Go to hell K.” That is, when I’m told I can’t do something, my handwriting suggests that I’m thinking: “…I’m doing it anyway.”

Ortega went on to say that Common Core’s de-emphasis of handwriting is simply a bad idea. “I think we need to stop these knee-jerk reactions of ‘Oh, let’s just yank it out because it’s antiquated and nobody is gonna use it.’ I’m saying that the processes a child’s brain goes through to learn it are invaluable to that child’s development.”

Nellie Neal, my first grade teacher, has been gone a long time, but I hear that my second grade teacher, Miss Casper, who worked very hard to do her best for my handwriting, is still in the area. To them both, I say, “Thank you for helping me learn how to write.”

Not everyone might think that was such a good idea, though…


Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing by going to his website at He is currently using a personal computer, not handwritten notes, to work on his fourth book.

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