We may know the script best from the original orotund Coca Cola logo.

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In a Chicago parochial school in the 1930s, my father learned a version of the ornamented script that had first been popularized in America in the 19th century. For the rest of his life, my father wrote fluently in a beautiful, ornate hand. But his art didn’t follow into the next generation, much to the despair of the long-suffering Dominican sisters who tugged at their wimples whenever forced to read my labored cat-scratch. It baffled them that a pupil with a voracious appetite for books should so mulishly refuse to perfect a legible, standard penmanship. The fault seemed to veer close to sin.

I’ve not been alone in toiling at handwriting, though. Millions have had it worse. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman satirist Lucian recounted the thrashings his teachers dealt out when he scraped the wax off his writing tablet to sculpt toy animals.

Victims and critics have long urged reading and writing teachers to use play to take the sting out. The empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), for instance, insisted that learning to read “must never be imposed as a task, nor made a trouble.” Two-and-a-half centuries later, the American educational thinker John Dewey also contemplated play and learning. “Where something approaching drudgery or the need of fulfilling externally imposed tasks exists,” Dewey observed, “the demand for play persists….No demand of human nature is more urgent or less to be escaped.”

Formal education admits change grudgingly, however, especially when it comes to inviting play into the curriculum. As I’ve noted elsewhere, laborious drilling in penmanship has persisted even long after new technology began to undermine centuries-old pedagogy. As early as the 1860s, the typewriter, a disruptive technology were there ever one, began to erode the value of handwriting and toss scribes out of work. Still, calligraphy classes thrive now, an art that bucks the trend to modernity. And even though word-processing becomes cheaper and handier by the week, some charter schools and home school advocates have recently taken up the cause for drilling students in cursive. A popular column in Psychology Today nostalgically argues for bringing back cursive.

Let’s look at an original and especially encouraging counter-example. Professor Arne Trageton of Norway’s Stord/Haugesund University College aimed to take the trouble out of literacy learning when he conducted an experiment in “writing to read” with primary school children in five Scandinavian and Baltic countries. He dared to suspend the several centuries-old curriculum that devoted hundreds of contact hours per year to drilling in penmanship.

Trageton guessed that penmanship skills linked closely to a developmental timeline and, therefore, that it made little sense to train small children to write before their fingers could comfortably hold a pencil. Trageton replaced penmanship drills with play on computer keyboards to familiarize the look of letters, to give students a feel for different type sizes, and to demonstrate how letters combined as words.

For the last two months of the school year, Trageton enlisted his Norwegian second graders in a game called “Publishing House.” They played the roles of reporters, short-story writers, illustrators, and layout artists. They assembled “books” and published “newspapers” that carried stories about a controversial soap opera, the eclipse of the moon, and naturally, (since this was Norway), ski-jumping. They drew pictures, wrote poems, and told jokes. The students discussed each other’s work in editorial conferences and shared the results at school assemblies. The teacher happily accepted a promotion to managing editor, art director, traffic manager, and literary critic.

Scribblers everywhere will rejoice that Trageton’s hunch paid off. His experiment yielded remarkable results finding, principally, that playing at writing trains penmanship as effectively as drills will. A panel that examined the third grade students’ handwriting declared their penmanship every bit as legible as the writing of peers who had learned the old-fashioned way. Literacy came to them on schedule and pleasurably, by way of structured play.

These fortunate students also packed much more cognitive and social development into the school experience. They learned about drawing and the uses of illustration, the challenges of performance, the value of criticism, and the benefits of collaboration. Trageton’s little-known study should be front-page news in the United States at a time when “teaching to the test” is sapping the morale of school teachers and boring the hell out of students. But his basic assumption is at least as old as Locke’s insight: when learning is not a trouble, it is more effective.

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