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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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Andrea Ange's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Owen,

If you are an Andy Rooney wannabe, then allow me to be as well! Not teaching penmenship is a mistake. Communication is a huge part of 21st Century Learning and yet we don't expect teachers and parents to lay a solid foundation for children to communicate with.

Writing is not innovative, therefore it is not an attractive activity. Writing however, does force one to think about what you are trying to communicate. In addition to meeting the NETS.S and NETS.T standards, we might want to ask ourselves if as part of our Critical Thinking, Problem Solving and Decision Making standard we need to include writing out information as part of the analytical process for all work.

By making the student write out the thought process, you force the child to think critically. Isn't that where a lot of schools see problems in our assessment tests? Students have trouble thinking critically, analyzing data and comprehending what they are reading. Communicating quickly is wonderful, but only if you have something coherent to say.

One of my favorite videos is "A Vision of K-12 Students Today". The little girl in the video asks how repetitive spelling is going to help her in the digital world. Repetitive spelling teaches patience, ingrains the words into your memory and in a classroom where penmenship is prized it teaches children how to select words carefully.

Thanks for asking.

Best regards,

Stephanie Mahathey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Owen,

Personally, I do think there's still a place for cursive writing in today's curriculum. I also think the physical action helps with critical thinking and memory, and promotes creativity.

One of the best teachers I had was also the one who taught me cursive writing. Her name was Mrs. Palmer! I'm sure no relation to the Palmer in your article. Mrs. Palmer used to have us practice strokes and letters in our spiral journals.

Cursive writing, when done well, is an artform. And yes, I agree that Twittering is like eating fast, junkfood.

Thanks for the article.

Stephanie Mahathey
EC-4th Bilingual Teacher Candidate
Transition to Teaching Program
University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College


Volunteer Afterschool Tutor
Proyecto Digna/Juan Diego
San Felipe de Jesus Church, Brownsville, Texas

Kate Gladstone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some folks, even teachers, have mistakenly called Palmer penmanship "Parker penmanship" by confusion with the Parker pen company. Whatever the name or the style you learned, clear rapid penmanship still matters ... at least, the next time your computer goes down and that cheery tech-support phone-recording asks you to "please find a pen and paper to write down all the information you will need." (The need multiplies when computers -- and power grids -- crash for longer periods. Ask anyone who survived Hurricane Katrina -- the schoolchildren who did without computers for six months, often after years of learning that handwriting couldn't matter in the Cyber Age, or other survivors: some of whom found rescue only when an emergency team picked up a handwritten message from a passing bottle.)

Good handwriting, though, doesn't need to mean using Palmer or any similar cursive style. Research (cited on my web-page) shows that the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive. The most rapid and most legible handwriters join only some letters -- making the very easiest joins, skipping the rest -- and tend to use print-like letter-shapes when a letter's cursive and printed shape disagree. For those taught such a style -- yes, methods and books exist for teaching it -- reading cursive poses no insurmountable difficulties, as learning to read cursive takes 15 minutes to an hour of teaching: depending mostly on the aptitude and age of the student. (Learning to write cursive notoriously takes months or even years, particularly when the student must learn to write it without having already learned to read it: a fact worth considering in our era of ever-more-crowded school days.)

Kate Gladstone
Director of the World Handwriting Contest
Founder and CEO of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works remediation/instruction service

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A year ago, I had one of my 7th grade students tell me he bet that I couldn't read his writing. Why? Because he had written it in cursive. None of my students do, so I wondered if he thought I couldn't read it?

I do believe that cursive may become one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. I tend to write in a combination of printing and cursive, although when I write something such as a thank you note, card or friendly letter (another perhaps lost cause), I only write in cursive. Still, why do we have an obsession with cursive? Why isn't printing enough? I agree with some of what's been said -- especially the idea that people remember more of what they learn by writing it down rather than typing it -- but why doesn't printing accomplish the same thing? Or is that just nails on the chalkboard for some of us?

An interesting discussion!


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