PMFS is in the news for our handwriting curriculum

January 16th, 2019
Category: News
By M. English For Digital First Media

Educators at Plymouth Meeting Friends School say they believe strong handwriting skills help students “become better readers, writers and thinkers.” To that end, early grade teachers at PMFS encourage pre-kindergartners to eat their morning snack with chopsticks, which, they explain, utilize the same hand muscles used for writing. Submitted photo — Plymouth Meeting Friends School

PLYMOUTH — Jan. 23 is National Handwriting Day. It’s also the birthday of John Hancock — the Colonial American statesman whose iconic endorsement topped this country’s Declaration of Independence and whose very name has become synonymous with “signature.”

Penmanship had its golden age — approximately the late 19th to early 20th centuries — and was once a regular part of most education programs. These days, the annual Philadelphia Pen Show (and others like it) attracts fans of fine manual writing instruments … as do groups like the Fountain Pen Network and Well-Appointed Desk and luxury purveyors like Franklin-Christoph, Appelboom and Fontoplumo. But instruction in the connected cursive letters once taught routinely isn’t what it used to be, and many contemporary kids learn to print and keyboard with nary a nod to the loops and lines of longhand.

Students at area Catholic schools are not among them.

For instance, the girls and boys at Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School in Plymouth Meeting learn to print in kindergarten and first grade and are taught cursive writing in second grade.

“We see it as a necessary skill,” says Principal Mary Ann Gilman.

Maura Sutherland, a learning specialist at neighboring Plymouth Meeting Friends School, agrees.

PMFS spokesmen say they believe cursive instruction maximizes students’ communication options.

“We … prepare our youngest students — 3-year-olds — for handwriting by exercising their fine motor skills and handwriting muscles in many ways,” Sutherland explains. “Using chopsticks at snack time is one example. Beginning in kindergarten, our students start getting focused practice with printing.

“Cursive instruction begins in earnest in third grade and is reinforced through sixth grade. By fifth grade, keyboarding is added to the mix, giving children all the tools they’ll need for success in the modern world. We have been heartened that growing neuroscientific evidence supports what we see — for many students, handwriting enhances creativity and memory and simply produces better results. We are a school that nurtures writers, so this is especially important to us.

“An added benefit to teaching cursive is that our students can read cursive and, therefore, can connect intergenerationally with historical primary source documents or, simply, with notes from grandma that students without cursive instruction can no longer decipher.”

Neither educator gets any argument from Colmar resident Susan Sobel, who takes her respect for “beautiful handwriting” to an even higher level as an accomplished calligrapher.

Sobel draws on her facility with pen, brush and ink to embellish invitations, place cards, table names and numbers, seating charts and menu cards. She requests an average donation of $100 for 100 invitations, all of which goes to her church, Mary Mother of the Redeemer in North Wales.

A former nurse, Sobel doesn’t do any marketing or advertising — except for entries in the Mary Mother of the Redeemer bulletin — and her “clients” typically find her by word of mouth.

She learned calligraphy in an adult evening class at North Penn High School “about 20 years ago” and downplays her philanthropy.

“It’s just relaxing,” says Sobel, who served as chief nursing officer at the former North Penn Hospital. “I enjoy doing it. Why calligraphy? My last class in grad school was biostatistics, and that was so rough I told myself, ‘If I survive this, I’m going to do something fun for myself.’ I tried beginners’ watercolor, and that was a bust, but I really enjoyed calligraphy.

“I’ve always been fascinated by beautiful handwriting. On a trip to England, I probably spent hours looking at beautiful, old handwritten documents.”

Of course, as a nurse, Sobel has spent even more time trying to translate doctors’ notoriously sloppy notes.

“I can’t tell you the amount of time I spent trying to decipher physician handwriting,” she says. “Interpretation was critical, and every effort was made to avoid errors. But they happened. Today, all physician orders are typed into a computer so time is saved and accuracy is preserved. I can see how progress has improved life, but I think beautiful handwriting is still appropriate for certain occasions.”

And in Sobel’s case, those occasions have been diverse and far flung — from the decorative poem she penned for a woman who telephoned from Denver to the wedding invitations for a couple whose marriage ceremony took place in the bride’s native India and another set of invites for retired football defensive end (and two-time Super Bowl winner) Justin Tuck whose then-future mother-in-law worked in Lansdale.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Sobel says. “I just sit in my kitchen, and, somehow, these people find their way to me.”

Additional information is available by emailing

National Handwriting Day is sponsored by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association trade group. Additional information, including tips for improving manual dexterity, is available at