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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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