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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.

Comments (44)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Janice Murray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the school that I taught at they actually introduced cursive to K4 and K5 students. They would show the manuscript and cursive on the board and the teacher would illistrate both letters. In K-5 and first grade the students only learned how to write in cursive. There philosphy was that students will learn how to write in manuscript by what the read, therefore they taught them how to write in cursive. Not only did I see a decline in reading abilities, but I also saw that children could not write in print at all. I think that students need to learn manuscript and in third grade be introduced to cursive as we did when we were younger. Whether they use the cursive later or not, it developes motor skills and exercises eye and hand cordination.

silbestre hernandez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like most of us blogging here, I too had to learn cursive when in elementary school. However, I don't teach it in my classroom because 1. its not required, and 2. I don't see any real world application for it. Prior to teaching, I worked in various professional outfits ranging from law offices to insurance companies, and I never saw a need for cursive writing in those fields. The only time I see cursive now is when someone signs their name. I don't see it anywhere else.

Also, I've asked college professors and teachers that work with me, what benefit we get from learning/teaching cursive writing. I usually don't get a response besides that there's an aesthetic value to it. One of our duties as teachers is to give students the tools to be ready for the 21st Century so that they can become productive members of society. Maybe cursive writing is not one of those tools.

Jon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Owen,

First and foremost, I am thankful I google'd you... Your contributions to GQ were fantastic (especially, "All the things we are..." - your (and many others) departure was a harbinger of bad tidings and confirmed how much the new editor has walked away from my demographic (style versus fashion, etc.). I expected to see your work in Men's Vogue - alas, nope... While I would guess you keep the lights on through your serious writing - I would be thrilled if you created a blog regarding your thoughts on style, life, etc... (I would bet many would gladly subscribe)

Now, on to cursive....

Yes, there is a place for legible handwriting... Cursive makes a great deal of sense, because, for most, it allows one to quickly record information in a permanent fashion that can be later referenced or shared...

Also, writing is a far more tangible link to the creative process than banging on a keyboard... Sure, creative writing can be done on a Mac/PC keyboard, but is it a visceral experience? I would argue it is very sterile and cold (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a tech/gadget guy - hands down).

One of your old colleagues, Art Cooper, wrote a short bit where he described lunching with Sharon Stone - she met with him because she was curious about the man who would send an invitation that was clearly written with a fountain pen (another of my weaknesses)... How many emails would make it past the many levels of screening to evoke such a response?

As evidence that, in a world where IC chips have propagated into every aspect of life, people still respond to the act of placing pen(cil) to paper, look no further than the popularity of Moleskine (and others) notebooks...

So, should we take time to teach cursive handwriting in school? Yes, it is an efficient means of sharing information cheaply (cost of paper and pen still is well below even the cost of last years netbook), teaches fine motor skills, and provides our minds the ability to make order out of chaos.

Daphna Woolfe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a veteran third grade teacher and the mother of a child with fine motor issues, I come at this from many sides. Currently, children should be taught to read cursive and perhaps develop a signature. Every year my students are excited to learn cursive, but this would certainly wane if it were not required. Of the 20 I teach each year, about half leave third grade with legible cursive. They are taught this again in 4th grade and required to do all of their work from 5th-8th grade exclusively in cursive. A good 25% of the students never develop cursive and therefore struggle with all subjects, especially spelling and all written work. My own son was required to use cursive for spelling in fifth grade. From Sept. through Dec. he never received higher than 40% on any spelling test. When the teacher finally acquiesced and allowed him to print, he aced every test from Jan. on. In our 21st century world, technology, whether we like it or not, is the cornerstone of the learning environment. To ignore teaching the students important keyboarding skills and spend so much time on cursive, is akin to placing desks in rows. Cursive and the factory model of teaching no longer reach our students. Welcome to our ever-changing world.

Linda Yates's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former CEO; strategy consultant on the topic of innovation to the Global 500; lifelong Silicon Valley investor in innovative start ups; Board Member of private and public companies; supporter of public education and leader on the topic of environment and sustainability I would ask that all educators look at cursive (and all of our curriculum) in the broader context of what it will take to thrive in the 21st century. What it will take to help our kids become the opportunity creators, solution finders and innovators of the future whether for the public sector or the private sector, the for profit world or the non profit world. As an example, Stanford recently launched its newest multi-disciplinary program - the Dschool. It's focus is not any traditional course of study but embracing and resolving the world's challenges. It is starting with such topics as health and wellness; third world development; K-12 education and sustainability. I found in our public school we were spending five days a week doing cursive and one day a week doing science. Sorry but in this day and age that is really not acceptable if we are really working from the future backwards and making good choices. Our district has just adopted the 7 Cs (we used Tony Wagner's excellent Global Achievement Gap list as our starting point and adapted it). Our kids are the hope for the future, they have so much potential and unlimited capacity...as you read these is it really worth the time drilling and killing them on cursive?

Thanks...

Collaboration and Teamwork: This means valuing and respecting all team members as people, their role in group work, and their contribution to group effort.

Critical Thinking: This means actively taking part in problem solving tasks, application of learned skills, discernment between opposing or conflicting ideas, and self-evaluation.

Creativity and Curiosity: This means taking academic risks, exercising flexibility, and demonstrating resilience following failure.

Communication: This means the ability to articulate orally, and in written, non-verbal, and technological ways, and to demonstrate capacity for aural (listening) understanding.

Citizenship: This means understanding civic and global responsibility, engaging in service learning, and demonstrating empathy and respect for cultural and individual differences.

Cultivation: This means developing and appreciation of the arts, maintaining physical and emotional health and wellness, and expanding a love of learning.

Competency: This means developing academic skill sets including all basic skills fundamental to future learning.

Garrett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that kids and grown ups should practice cursive handwritting. I've seen alot of handwriting that I don't understand how they could have even passed school with not only their handwriiting but their pinmenship and grammer. (Not saying that mine is the best). I believe that if they do take out the need for actual handwritting then our country will go south even more than what it is now. People need to know how to write. It has been one of the main primary subjects in our country and other countries for decades. People need to understand that if it is taking out of our schools then we as American people will be put on the back burner of the world as being dumb. We the people need to stand up and say something or take our kids out of the schools that don't promote such things as good pinmenship and grammer. I watch our economy go south everyday. I sometimes wonder what I could do to make a difference and if it is standing up and saying something, then I'm there. What ever the challenge is, I'm up to it. People need to know how to write. It's up to people like us to keep that tradition going on.

Thanks, Garrett Avant Comp.1
S.A.P.

Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm sorry, but for a 10th grader who writes cursive for essays and the lot, and for someone as important as you to say that cursive isn't necessary is like a slap in the face to me. Cursive is the very definition to me as professional. I remember back in my elementary years I was in private school, and learning cursive was a must. You didn't have a choice. We learned cursive every other day until we can write it until like it was second nature. And you know what? I found it easier to do than print.
"is it really worth drilling, and killing them on cursive?" Um are you serious? Cursive by far is not a hard subject to learn at all. I never found learning cursive a hassle so you are over exaggerating when you said that. Honestly we are letting technology take over the very things that define us. The best inventions in the world were thought up on pencil and paper. The best pieces of literature were written in cursive. Cursive is a skill that we should be proud of having, and here you are talking about it like it's a hassle. If cursive isn't important then you might as well take History classes out of the curriculum as well. After all when you have a country where every 1/5 kids can't even name their five freedoms in the first amendment(yet alone know what the others were) we're obviously helping our kids to the future...a future where America will become(if it hasn't already)the dumbest country in the world. We will become people where you ask kids to write their name, and their printing will look like a 3yr. old's scribbles and a dog went and smudged the words with it's tongue. While other third world countries can write cursive and feel proud about it, we won't even be able to write a signature, instead it's going to be nothing but loops, and scribbles.
Oh and another thing your 4 of the 7 C's says:"This means the ability to articulate orally, and in written, non-verbal, and technological ways, and to demonstrate capacity for aural (listening) understanding"
notice you also put the ability to write in "written". So does cursive not count into that category too?
Schools spend so much time teaching kids how to print, yet they say they don't have enough time to teach kids cursive.
Honestly this is very, very, very sad. I hope we change our ways.

Judy Weurding, Atlanta metro area's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 6th grade LA, and many of my students are not that far removed from the 3rd grade and cursive writing lessons. Not all, but many of my students have taken printing to a new level: speed-of-light printing. This translates into: they may or may not be able to read it, but state that they can. Where by, for me, it is chicken scratch and I can not read it. I remind the students involved that if I can not read it; I can not grade it. To save them, I suggest that they use cursive to A) slow them down a bit so it is legible and B)they have a little more time to THINK about what they are writing. So far, so good over the course of 20 years.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach fifth graders. I have struggled with the idea of taking class time to teach cursive writing for a few years. I see that my students' writing, printing and cursive, is very underdeveloped. Many students do not form their letters "correctly," or in a way that is efficient. Their pen-strokes are often backward, leaving them at the wrong side of one letter before moving on to the next. I do require them to learn cursive writing. I think teaching them the steps to letter formation is important so they can more efficiently get their ideas out on paper. They also need to be able to read cursive writing, because that is how much of our personal, written communication is presented.

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