Education · Handwriting

Rachel Jeantel Isn’t the Only One Who Can’t Read Cursive

"I don't read cursive."
“I don’t read cursive.”

We should not have been surprised when the star witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial, a 19-year-old high school graduate, couldn’t read a letter handed to her by the defense attorney because, as she explained, “I don’t read cursive.”  For many young people, cursive handwriting might as well be hieroglyphics. High school teachers say they no longer write in cursive on the board or on student papers because  their students can’t read it. The customer rep at my bank recently told me that she has to print when she writes a note to the tellers.

Where The Teaching of Cursive Stands  The new Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states, make the teaching of handwriting optional, and sentiment for dropping it altogether is widespread. To their credit, five State Boards of Education—Alabama, Massachusetts, Georgia, California, and Kansas—have included cursive in the standards for their schools, and the North Carolina legislature has actually passed a law requiring the teaching of cursive.

As far as I know, nobody is recommending that we not teach any form of handwriting at all. Typically manuscript printing or what is known as “ball-and-stick” is taught in first (sometimes kindergarten) through second grade. Cursive has then been taught in third though fourth grade. It should be said here that there are different forms of cursive writing. What most people think of as cursive is whatever they themselves were taught, which in the United States is probably a form of what might be called “looped or conventional cursive.” An alternative, Italic cursive, has no loops, is not preceded by ball-and-stick printing, but printed letters that are like the cursive form but unconnected. Many people assume that ball-and-stick, because it looks like print in books, helps children learn to read. 

But What About That? Ball-and-stick was first introduced in the New York City school system in 1922 by Marjorie Wise, a reading specialist. Before then, children just learned cursive from the beginning. Wise herself eventually recognized that there are drawbacks to ball and stick, but by then it had caught on throughout the United States and we were stuck with it. Actually because of the fluid left-to-right movement of cursive and the fact that spaces come between words, not individual letters, it is more helpful to the beginning reader than ball-and-stick.

But why teach cursive at all? In ways not yet fully understood, being able to write fluently and rapidly in a running hand actually helps the brain learn how to work more efficiently. Research suggests that cursive facilitates creativity, helps memory, and gives kids a powerful tool  for learning. What is unique about cursive is the fluidity of movement, which does not happen when one has to lift the pen between every letter or when one is tapping on a keyboard.

Where do we go from here? I’m afraid that saving cursive depends on more neuroscientific research. Only that will convince many teachers and parents that there are benefits to be had from knowing how to write fluently in a running hand that no other form of written communication offers. It will take time, but I’m convinced that will happen. Meanwhile it seems we will be turning out high school graduates who cannot sign their names.


If I Were Curriculum Queen, Here’s What I’d Do

I can’t speak to math, science or geography, only to say that I think that by the time kids enter high school, they should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide without using a calculator, know that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, and be able to find Europe on a map.

But when it comes to the “language arts,” I have some more definite ideas. Here’s one of them:

I’d require that cursive hand writing be taught beginning in third grade. By fifth grade, students would begin each school day by writing independently for ten or fifteen minutes in a spiral bound journal, which would be kept in the classroom. They could write anything at all that they wanted, but because some students can’t think of a thing to say when faced with a blank page, on the chalkboard, I’d put sayings, proverbs, spelling tips, that they could copy or sentences to complete to get them started. I’d circulate among them, correcting any bad habits of letter formation.

I’d teach keyboarding in the second semester of the fifth grade, and from then on keyboarding and cursive writing would coexist in the classroom (provided of course that computers were available) with ten or fifteen minutes beginning each school day (or in English class once they reached high school) writing by hand in the journal , come hell or high water. I’d require that some written assignments be done in cursive.

Teachers will object that there is not enough time to do this because standardized testing  mandates the teaching of so much material, and anyway students don’t need to know how to write a running hand in the digital age.

Have we really reached the stage where teachers don’t have ten minutes of discretionary time in the school day?

As for “need,” of course students don’t “need” cursive writing the way Charles Dickens, or for that matter our great grandmothers “needed” it, but they do need to be able to think their way carefully through a sentence; they need to think creatively and imaginatively, and they need to build neural connections that lead to increased language fluency. Neuroscientific studies indicate that overcoming the motor challenge posed by cursive writing leads to these outcomes.

But more research is needed to explore the effect writing in cursive has on the brain before we jettison it from the curriculum! Bill Gates, are you listening?

And as an afterthought: Did you know J.K Rowling wrote the first drafts of the Harry Potter books by hand?

Education · Handwriting

Today is National Handwriting Day—Taking a Long and Optimistic View

caption goes here
And the winner is—cursive handwriting

The folks at WordPress, the company that hosts this blog, kindly provide bloggers with statistics at the end of the year that show their most popular posts. And the winner for ‘Hints and Echoes” by a wide margin is—the June 28 post, “Cursive Handwriting: Should We Care If It Disappears?” Since it seems to be such a popular topic, I decided to give it some more thought.

When I voiced my opinion on the subject in June, I tended to think that regretfully handwriting was a disappearing practice, but now, I think I’ve been looking at it the wrong way. It’s not a question of an old technology (cursive handwriting)  giving way to a new technology (word processing), and the old technology becoming obsolete. After all, we are not going to stop manufacturing hands and fingers. Should we decide to reintroduce the teaching and practice of handwriting in our schools after it has virtually disappeared in society, it would be a simple matter.

I say “virtually disappeared” because I’m not so sure the practice of writing by hand will ever completely disappear. Even now when people are wearing out their thumbs texting, and it seems as if there is no need for the more leisurely pursuit of a handwritten letter or the more thoughtful process of making handwritten notes, there are those who continue to put pen to paper. These are the folks who are keeping stationery companies in business; the professors who require that lecture notes be taken by hand; the mothers who insist that their children handwrite thank you notes; the men and women (I suspect mainly women) who keep a handwritten journal.

It may be that eventually writing by hand becomes a social class marker, and the few who can afford creamy ivory correspondence cards engraved with their initials will write on them by hand and they will make sure that their children learn to write by hand too,  even if it means private instruction.

But I think that sooner or later, there will be a change of attitude among the wider population, and people will recognize the importance of handwriting, not because it is genteel, but because it connects us and affects us in a way that written words generated by a machine do not.  We are still in the early stages of the digital revolution after all. Though it may seem that email and social media have been around forever, we’ve hardly had time to really recognize and accept the negative effects on our personal lives of computer-generated writing.

And when neuroscientific research, which is now well underway, shows conclusively that writing by hand changes the brain in a positive way, which I have no doubt that it will, then the educational community will take note and introduce handwriting in the curriculum and herald it as a bright new educational reform!

If you were educated in a U.S. public school, you were probably taught the Palmer method, which replaced the less efficient nineteenth-century Spencerian script, notable for its excessive curlicues. Then there is the Italic script, which does not connect all the letters. I personally find an Italic hand more pleasing. Do we need all those hoops and loops? However, having mastered the Palmer method, I think I’d better not try to change my handwriting at this late date.

The Palmer alphabet
The Palmer alphabet
Spencerian script was based on Copperplate engraving
Spencerian script was based on Copperplate engraving
Italic cursive
Italic cursive

Incidentally, have you noticed that almost everyone admires beautiful handwriting, but a great many  people are embarrassed and apologetic when it comes to their own? Maybe that shows that we haven’t done a very good job of teaching it. I think we’ll do better next time. It may take a generation or more—or maybe less—but eventually I think that we will rediscover the joys and advantages of writing by hand. (For more on cursive handwriting, type the word “cursive” in the search box.)

P.S. Have you seen the signature of our new secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew—a signature that will now appear on all of our paper currency? Actually, it’s not so much a signature as it is a logo. I wonder how long it took him to come up with this absurdity. It occurs to me that Mr. Lew may be giving tradition the finger (sorry!).

Signature of Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury
Signature of Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury

Thank Goodness for Christmas Cards

The first Christmas card to arrive
The first Christmas card to arrive

They are my favorite part of Christmas—a season which in the main unaccountably saddens me. I understand I am not alone, Christmas depression being fairly common.

But the cards have started arriving! Each one lifts my spirits, and I have just figured out why. It’s the sight of those handwritten envelopes—several of them in each mail. I recognize each friend before I look at the return address because I know his or her handwriting, even though I probably haven’t seen it for a year. It’s as if these friends have come to visit, for a good bit of their personality and their individuality is conveyed by the unique way they have of putting pen to paper.  I really cherish each one. So far, no e-cards. Continue reading “Thank Goodness for Christmas Cards”

Education · Handwriting

Cursive Handwriting— Should We Care If It Disappears?

Do you remember when these letters stretched across the classroom over the chalkboard? It probably depends on how old you are.

Did  you know that many schools have stopped teaching handwriting altogether? All but six states as of February of this year have adopted the common core standards, which do not require that handwriting be taught. Individual schools may teach it if they want, but it is not required. And so a debate rages. Should we or shouldn’t we? Continue reading “Cursive Handwriting— Should We Care If It Disappears?”