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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Is Cursive Writing Cursed with Extinction?

With the fear that I might be labeled an Andy Rooney wannabe, cranky about things I can't do anything about, I am hesitant to mention the twinge of sadness I felt at the news recently that public schools have, for the most part, officially abandoned the teaching of cursive handwriting.

But there, I've mentioned it, so I'll explain the twinge.

First, I'll be honest: I doubt that there was anything more tedious than my elementary school lessons in what used to be known as Parker penmanship (though I have a competing memory of "Palmer penmanship.") I recall, still, the wide-lined paper -- one line indicating the ceiling for lowercase letters, the upper for capitals, and the upswoop of the the h and f and other tall lowercase letters.

For the naturally disorderly state that young boys represent, the discipline of keeping writing within these borders was nothing less than painful. The girls were always better at the meticulous business. And as a leftie whose hand took on a clawlike curl in order not to smear what I'd written, the pain was accentuated.

And yet, these days, when I get the occasional ink-on-paper note from my son -- the successful product of an expensive private school, an expensive private college, and an expensive law school -- I look at his untutored block printing and have a moment of regret that he was spared the tedium of penmanship in order to do more "creative" things in the early years of his education.

Because most of his writing and correspondence, as is the case with almost everyone these days, springs from a keyboard and his self-taught typing skills, I wonder why I care. Truth be told, my left-handedness -- and laziness and impatience -- has never put me in the running for a calligraphy prize.

But when I sit down to write an important personal note, or a sympathy card, or anything else for which computer word processing is inappropriate, I can -- if I slow myself sufficiently -- turn out a legible and not unattractive script where all the letters connect with a rhythmic order that old Parker (or Palmer) might approve.

And in the process, I find a certain satisfaction at the logical, linear process of connecting one flowing letter to the next. This might be the equivalent of a computer animator actually taking a pencil and drawing a character on paper, just to recall the pleasure of small muscle control.

Handwriting may share some of the virtues of the growing slow-food movement. (If you want to infer that Twittering is junk food, don't let me discourage you.) There's an additional benefit: A necessary deliberation that slows me down and -- in the absence of a Delete key -- makes me choose words more carefully.

In my long, difficult effort to learn Italian long after my student years, I have found that I remember vocabulary better when I handwrite it on paper than when I type it onto a screen. This is anecdotal, not scientific, evidence, but the more deliberate act seems to be a mnemonic aid.

An additional worry as handwriting vanishes: Will coming generations, never having learned it, be incapable of reading cursive script? Few of us can read our doctors' prescriptions, but what if we couldn't read that inherited box of our grandparents' love letters?

A teacher in an excellent high school told me recently, "We're not hands on, we're tech on." Clearly, that's the way of the future, and, not being Andy Rooney, I'm not arguing against it. But some fine day, when budgets are no longer busted and schools can add extracurricular "frills" again, an elective on handwriting might be well worth offering. Call it a history course. With extra credit for lefties.

What do you think? Is there still a place for cursive writing in the curriculum? Please share your thoughts.

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Lynn Hughes's picture

It was Plato, in Phaedrus. The god Thoth has invented writing, and he is chided for this by Ammon who said, roughly, "This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness because people will not use their memories. They will trust the written characters. Your discovery is not an aid to memory but to reminiscence. You give your followers the semblance of truth instead of truth itself. They will appear to be omniscient but know nothing. They will have the appearance of wisdom without its reality."

Times don't change much. I've had similar speeches directed at me for teaching students to use calculators.

As for cursive, have you ever filled in a form by hand that did NOT say "please print"? I've been a classroom teacher for more than 40 years. I'm delighted to be teaching keyboarding instead of cursive to my 5th and 6th graders.

Mary Scorpati's picture

Reading this post brought me back to second grade in catholic school. Miss Radford standing over me telling me how neat and perfect my letters were gave me such a sense of pride and accomplishment. I just loved penmanship, and 40 years later I still do! I agree with Judy that cursive does require the student to slow down, which gives ample time to think about what is being written. I also believe that cursive writing is an art and a skill. Should we tell all the incredible artists to put down the sketch pencils and paint brushes just because we have computer graphics? Just because something can be done on a keyboard doesn't necessarily mean it's better, it simply means it's quicker.

Diana's picture
Diana
Fourth Grade Teacher From Brooklyn, NY

Well I am glad to say that I still teach cursive in my class. Writing in script is a must. This skill takes a lot of discipline. I use it as an incentive or an activity they can work on once they have completed their assignments. My students love it! Can you imagine seeing them as adults without an official signature? How about going to sign a check and they just print their names. Not cool at all. I refuse to cheat my student. I had the opportunity to learn it and so will they.

DebM's picture

I am a new third grade teacher. I will be teaching cursive handwriting this year. Students are excited and have a genuine interest in learning how to do cursive handwriting. Due to the fact that printing is not emphasized as much in earlier grades at my school, I have found that most students are having a difficult time reading their peers papers. I have had many one on one conferences on just handwriting skills. I refuse to believe that younger generations would not benefit from learning how to do cursive handwriting.

Em Tan's picture

I might've overlooked it, but does anyone on here post WHY cursive originated? We tend to do things because it's what we've been taught to do, passed on whatever...It is not a necessary skill as many have mentioned here except to sign your name. Heck and you don't even have to know how to write actual letters in cursive to sign your name; have you ever seen some people's signatures?

Susan Moore's picture

First, what: are we therefore to dispense with our signatures? Do we really expect a sympathy card to be warm with our names printed? What about contractual agreements? And what about our individual sense of identity in our signatures, in our handwriting? How will forensic scientists perform handwriting analysis to estimate characteristics of a criminal? Were these schools that decided to stop teaching it thoroughly educated in all these repercussions?

Jermaine C. Lucas's picture

Cursive is the most efficient means of writing. I believe that the reason many persons are unable to write well in cursive is because of their lack of knowledge of letter construction. People generally imitate the general characteristics of letter forms without havng a thorough knowledge of the letter construction. I suggest that one use the old Palmer Method of Business Writing or the Arm Movement Method of Rapid Writing by C.P.Zaner. I find these manuals to be quite helpful if one wants to give added attention in order to improve his or her penmanship.These manuals can be located on google.

Ms. Burton's picture

I am a high school English teacher. I am a pragmatist in the sense that the current world deals with many tools with which we can express ourselves: e-mail, texting, printing, etc. However, I want my students to be competent in all of their expressions. It seems pitiful to me that we graduate thousands (dare I say millions) of students that cannot even sign their own name. Our standards are so low that it doesn't seem to matter that a person cannot construct a sentence. Content is now everything and format is nothing. Does anyone realize that most students do not know how to address a letter? This is a sad commentary on our education system. Does it sound petty? Try paying your rent without writing a check and addressing the envelope. These are basic skills that we easily dismiss as unnecessary. Well, I care, and I work with my students to try my best to give them the gift of the basics of the English language.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

This research just came out that the NY Times wrote about that I thought was fascinating!

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fade...

"Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture's contents and reframe it -- a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding."

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