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Pen still mightier than the e-mail

Before the Christmas season got too far gone, Leona Kaminski sat down with pen in hand and did what she does most every year: addressed and wrote by hand nearly 100 cards to far flung friends and family.

It took her two full days, but the widowed Pinellas Park woman said it was worth every ink dribble.

"I like to put a little note in each one," said Kaminski, 73, ''just so they know I'm thinking about them."

Even as e-mail, blogging and instant messaging shove handwritten communication out of our daily lives, the winter holidays turn thousands of Americans like Kaminski into prolific pen pushers.

It seems nothing says Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! I love you! Please come home soon! more than a loved one's distinct scrawl.

But as the little ones prepare to write thank-yous to Nana and Papa for the Wii Nintendo game and Dancing Princesses Barbie, don't be surprised if their words are illegible.

Most U.S. primary school children receive 10 minutes or less of handwriting instruction daily. Many young people struggle to write - and even read - cursive writing, once considered the hallmark of an educated American.

Still the Greeting Card Association estimates 85 percent of Americans send cards between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day resulting in the exchange of about 2-billion cards.

"Corresponding by hand will always be valued," said Michael Sull, 57, of Gardner, Kan., one of only 13 master penman recognized by the International Association of Master Penman, Engrossers, Teachers of Handwriting in New York. "There's a personal touch to it that means a lot."

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People like Sull condemn the demise of longhand. In the 1940s and 1950s, some teachers spent up to two hours a week on penmanship.

But in the last 20 years, as computers took up residence in homes and standardized testing exacted higher demands from public schools, handwriting instruction slipped as a staple in most classrooms.

A Vanderbilt University survey of primary school teachers in 2003 found most spend 10 minutes or less daily on penmanship.

Instead of teaching separate daily lessons on handwriting, public school educators in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties integrate handwriting into other subjects.

Children are taught manuscript lettering beginning in kindergarten and cursive writing by third grade as part of language art lessons.

School officials say the state's expectations for students in reading, math and science leave little time for penmanship.

"What is more important for a child, to be able to read or comprehend on or above grade level or be able to do a letter formation?" asked Carol York, Hillsborough's elementary language arts supervisor. "You can't afford that much time out of your student day."

Some programs offer dedicated lessons

Many homeschooled children and those who attend private schools still receive dedicated lessons on penmanship.

Recently at St. Petersburg Christian School, third-grade teacher Kathy Spangler spent 15 minutes reviewing the more tricky lowercase w, b and v in cursive.

But first she made sure her 20 students were in proper handwriting position, with their backs against their chairs, their elbows on the table and their papers slanted - a key lesson for mastering the subject.

The kids practiced writing each letter with their fingers in the air and then took pen in hand to practice on paper using the Zaner-Bloser method, the most popular handwriting curriculum.

Spangler walked from table to table, praising her students for their "beautiful slants" and their "excellent formations."

They will receive a grade on their report cards for penmanship.

Spangler said she realizes many of her students will forgo cursive writing for print letters as they grow older.

"They still need the experience of writing in cursive," said Spangler, 47. "They still need the skill to write it and read it."

Of the almost 1.5-million students who took the SAT in 2006, 15 percent wrote in cursive. Their scores were slightly higher than students who printed - 7.2 compared to 7.0.

Vanderbilt education professor Steve Graham, who studies language acquisition, said he's not sure if cursive writing trumps print, but studies show the more slowly someone writes, the more likely he will forget something.

Poor handwriting also lends itself to simpler writing and when homework is graded by teachers, neater-written papers often score higher regardless of content.

"For young kids who don't like to write, they will avoid writing whenever possible," Graham said. "That's not a good thing because the only way to get better is by writing more."

Consider Chris Bogle, a 39-year-old Madeira Beach pharmaceutical salesman. His handwriting? Awful.

"I completely gave up on cursive writing," said Bogle. "Everything's in print."

His signature is "about all anybody's going to get."

But even that is not a sure thing. His wife signed all the couple's Christmas cards this year. "She didn't even ask me to sign them," said Bogle.

But Thelma Halawy, owner of a Corner of England and Festive Occasions, senses people are placing a higher value on penmanship these days.

She said more customers have been coming into her tea and stationery shop in St. Petersburg wanting to add a personal touch to their correspondence.

"I think people are fed up with both e-mail and chat rooms," said Halawy, who writes in ornate calligraphy and handwrote Christmas cards for a customer. "Everything is so automated now.

"The revival, it seems, is coming."

Christmas brings the personal touch

Christmas remains the No. 1 card-sending holiday, comprising about 30 percent of the $7.5-billion greeting card industry's annual sales. The average family sends 25 cards.

Electronic cards have increased in popularity, but Heather Bentley, Christmas program manager for the American Greetings card company in Cleveland, doesn't see them replacing paper cards.

"It's the warm and fuzzy feeling people get" with paper cards, she said. "No other time of year are consumers going to take the time."

But next year, as you pull out your pen remember this: Many card recipients (not to mention etiquette experts) prefer a person's handwriting to an embossed name, photocopied signature or mass-produced family letter.

"There's something about seeing a person's handwriting," said Debbie Friley, 53, a St. Petersburg Bible teacher who has a part-time calligraphy business.

"It's like recognizing someone's voice. When you see a person's handwriting, it causes an emotion like, 'Oh, it's Grandmother.'

"When you read someone's handwriting, I believe it brings you closer to that person."

This year, about 25 people received Friley's Christmas cards she made, each with handwritten personal messages.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

By the numbers

85 Percent of the almost 1.5-million students who wrote their answers in block letters instead of cursive on the SAT college entrance exam writing section in 2006.

10 Average number of daily minutes U.S. primary students receive in handwriting instruction.

6 Percent of U.S. hospital patients hurt by medication, which can be linked to bad handwriting.

12 Percent of primary school teachers who say they received adequate preparation to teach penmanship.

Source: College Board, Vanderbilt University, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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