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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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Sam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am 28 years old. I learned cursive in school. I often wonder if the effort was wasted. I never use cursive in my modern life, except to sign my name. My notes to myself and others are in print.

Many people I know still try to use cursive writing, usually a mix of cursive and print. The results are not so good. It usually turns out to be a mix of chicken scratch and random loops than any identifiable symbol.

Is cursive doomed? Maybe. I feel it's more important for students to learn to print well so most of the world can read it, than learn cursive.

Holly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hmm... there have been many thought provoking points here and I wish to maybe add one more. I wonder if learning to write in cursive is much like learning multiplication or division? In the real world we have calculators at our disposal 24/7 so why learn how to do the math the long way or the difficult way? Except, that it is important to learn the foundations, the reasons that 2/2 is 1. I think learning to write in cursive is much the same.

We may choose not to write in cursive, but that's a personal choice. Should the schools determine which method we personally prefer? I admit, I typically write in print, but when my hand starts to hurt or I'm in a hurry I immediately switch to cursive. It is faster and puts less pressure on my hand.

Thanks for such an intriguing discussion!

Michael Misha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Owen,

Greetings from a fellow southpaw.

I really enjoyed your post. Just like A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney, or John Stossel's Give Me A Break, your passion shows through and makes your writing engaging to read.

I have to agree with you that I would feel rude if I didn't write in cursive for thank you cards, sympathy cards, and the like. Right now, like you, I think a plurality of our culture considers word processed text too sterile and cold for heartfelt messages. I suspect that the balance will shift as time passes, and a new, younger plurality will win the day. Maybe their new definition of "rude" will be text without emoticons. 8-)

Like you, I don't remember things as well when I type them. I just performed couple of quick searches on Academic Search Premier and Google Scholar, but I didn't find any studies that compared the effects of handwriting v typing on recall. In any event, I suspect that even if handwriting were shown to produce better recall than typing, it's unlikely that handwriting would enjoy the same advantage over printing. Maybe there's an education or psychology PhD student out there looking for subject about which to write his/her dissertation. If so, maybe s/he could save pen and paper work from extinction. Then again, I think there was a philosopher long ago who lamented the invention of paper and quill, saying something like, 'This will be the ruination of man's ability to remember things,' but that didn't save stone tablets. (The irony here is that I can't remember who said it or exactly what they said. Can anyone help me out?)

By now, you must be wondering what the subject of my post has to do with it contents. I'm finally getting to that.

From my perspective, it seems the quantity of information to be learned is growing exponentially. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, schools will eventually need to decide what skills and content have been rendered obsolete, so they can be nixed to make room for new skills and content. Something's gotta give. Learning handwriting is time intensive and growing less relevant everyday (relative to other things kids could be learning), while keyboarding skills, for example, are growing more relevant. Faced with these competing demands for curricular time, what else can schools do but get out the chopping block?

Hope you're enjoying the summer,

Michael Misha

Roberta's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hmmm, I teach cursive even though our kinder teachers no longer seem to think printing is important. I think it is still important to learn both because of the visual spacial skills that are learned. The other thing is that cursive is an art. In Japan, writing beautiful is considered an art and revered. Cursive can be the same. The many different styles and fonts that you see in computers came from the fact that someone thought that the font was beautiful or "cool". There are so many ways to write. I love writing on computers, but I am thankful that when I need or want to that I can write in cursive. More importantly, there is a lot of research out there on the benefits of cursive taught correctly. I get so tired of "best practices". I am thankful for what I learned at the University of San Diego. This was it. As a teacher, I would always be presented with the cure to educating children, and it was important to learn the current theories. However, each child is different. Take what you have found works for children and apply the new theories with what you have found that works with children. Rote memory, repetitive spelling, etc all have their merits in educating holistically. Each educational methods by themselves may work for some, but not for all. Take the best of each of them and do what you think is best for the child. For me, it is important to teach cursive for eye-hand coordination as well as many other benefits. Cursive still has its place even with the enormous benefits of technology.

Ulysses's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These last years, everybody, especially the people that run the education systems, seem to be in some sort of hysteria to look to the world as modern and as progressive as humanly possible. As a 17 year old who learned cursive in school, I have to say that I find it pitiful that there's even talk of it not being taught. Having changed schools a few times, and having covered a quite large array of teaching methods, from standard public schools to the Jesuits, I found that, more often than not, "modern" school programs were really just cheap excuses for having diminished programs, and though, of course, as a student I enjoyed the more modern programs on account of idleness being something generally more pleasant to kids than work, it was quite clear that, as a rule of thumb, the more progressive and modern the system was branded to be, the more monumental was the loss of time therein.
Cursive,apart from the very true observations about mnemonics and such brought forth by the previous posters, teaches two things: 1)A meticulousness and -yes, it's quite true- an affection for proper form in small things, that is all too often forgotten in our days and 2)that not everything depends on computers, but that these are JUST ANOTHER TOOL. You have to learn to do things yourself. They make certain tasks more practical, but they will NOT change the way we live. Youtube, or e-books, or Twitter, or whatever other trinket have NOT revolutionized my life, nor anyone else's -save perhaps that of the people that sell them-, and it's high time the people running the schools got wind of that stopped trying to play modern and compete with MTV, and went back to actually teaching things. For my part, I always went to school with the idea that, dull as it may be, learning things edified my mind, and made me smarter and somehow better, and certainly not because I genuinely believed that grammar, or quadratic equations would be found in my future employment to be of any use whatever. If you wand kids to do "useful" things, give them a pike and send them to mine gold; you can't get any more useful than that...
Perhaps I got a bit out of the way and ranted about things not completely of the subject; I am sorry for this, but the state of mind I expounded really is, I believe, the basis for this particular and many other problems in schools.
Ulysses, 17
Schoolboy until recently, soon-to-be student of Classical Philology
P.S. From personal experience, cursive writing was deemed by classmates as "cool". Though of course, it didn't stand a chance in hell against Gothic script; it seems that the older you get the better...

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well, I must admit that reading this entry and the ensuing replies was a little like I imagine an encounter with a Tim Wakefield knuckleball to be like. Seems as though it would be easy to hit out of the park but, because of the unpredictable direction, it is difficult to catch, let alone hit! There were some twists and turns to the discussion here, but it has been fun reading this!

All kidding aside, I remember when I first started teaching over a quarter century ago, my principal required each grade 1-8 class to begin each day with handwriting. He would come and collect our books every once in a while, and comment on the students' progress.

Part of me misses those days...there was something very predictable about the first 15 minutes of each day and the activity really did help to improve student handwriting.

In thinking about our world today, if you take away the handwritten greeting cards and, possibly, the notes to the teacher, there is little evidence in the non-school world that cursive is still an important skill. Nice? Yes! Vital? No.

Interestingly enough, the question that I come away with has to do with Owen's perception that, for some occasions, a handwritten response is considered more personal. I agree, but I'm wondering why, when emails and electronically printed communications are acceptable for things as important as job resumes, invitations, legal briefs, thesis documents and practically everything else that is communicated, it is more desirable to use handwritten text when sending greeting cards. There may be something important here. What is it about the handwritten (or hand printed) message that says, "I care" more loudly than if I were to use an electronic form of communication.

Heather Voges's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Owen,

As a second grade teacher, cursive writing in the curriculum is something I have teeter tottered on back and forth the past 2 years. Personally, I struggled with cursive as a child and now write with a combination of print and cursive. If given the option, I prefer to type out whatever possible.

However, I am a firm believer in the written note. We cannot rely on the computer for everything and honestly, and email is much less personal than a nicely written thank you note.

At this point, when I assign projects and written assignments I allow my students to type it out, but I grade the "neatly" written comment. I think with spelling and grammar check on the computer, it is still very important to include nice writing (both print and cursive) in the curriculum and encourage the practice of both that and typing skills.

Thank you for opening up this very interesting topic. I'm curious to see where cursive is in the curriculum ten years from now.

Regards,
Heather Voges Welch

Anne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for an interesting, thought provoking entry.

My daughter's previous school taught cursive before printing. The research they reviewed stated that cursive is easier for kids to learn because it begins from the same starting point. There is no struggle in trying to figure out where to put the pencil. They learn it faster, contrary to the previous poster, and spend more time writing than learning how to write.

On the other hand, some of us have lost the ability to edit as we write, given the amount of writing I do on the computer. And, although I took great pride in my careful penmanship as a child, I now rival any scribble on a prescription pad.

Megan Stricker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is such an interesting discussion. One that I have had with fellow teachers in the past. I teach fifth grade and once every few weeks we have a cursive handwriting page. My students have already learned cursive, but other than that one page that I ask for, very few actually write in cursive when given a choice.

My best friend adopted a 12 year old from Africa. When she brought her back to the US, she was so shy that they decided to homeschool, being a teacher herself. She was talking to her brother and asked if he thought she should teach cursive at the same time as printing, trying to catch her daughter up. He said that he thought she should skip cursive all together, because most people print and/or type things out. I found it interesting that you would just skip teaching cursive all together. I had never thought of not having it being taught. I agree with Holly that most people are going to end up using calculators, but we still need to learn the foundations of math.

My friend ended up teaching cursive to her daughter becuase many adults still use cursive when they send cards or write on the board. It would be frustrating if you were only able to read one type of writing. I am not sure how long schools are going to continue teaching cursive, but I am glad that I learned the art.

Thank you for all the discussion.

michele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just recently had this discussion with a fellow teacher! I think that learning cursive is definitely starting to be pushed to the "back burner" of the educational landscape. It is not a benchmark or standard in most states.
Cursive writing is a beautiful art form when used properly and done with diligence. I had a college room mate who had the most perfect (and beautiful) cursive handwriting. I envied her ability to write letters home that looked as if they should be framed.
Some will argue that there are no standardized testing booklets or applications that are printed using cursive writing, therefor it must not be necessary. I feel, as a teacher, that cursive is a beautiful way for students to express themselves while writing and as others have mentioned, a hand written note is just not the same when received with D'Neilian print.

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