Yesterday I received two handwritten missives in my mail, both written in cursive. One was from my doctor, explaining the results of recent routine blood tests and wishing me a pleasant weekend. The other, a brief and lovely message from a friend who recently visited, thanking me for a pleasant time.
And not too long ago, I had a lively conversation with a stranger on the bus who happened to notice I was doing some editing with a fountain pen. He allowed that he loved writing with fountain pens, in fact collected them. I was sorry when we came to his stop.
Personal experience aside— it seems to me that resistance to abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting is growing.
Some teachers say that in this technological era, being able to write in cursive is an unnecessary skill. What kids are going to need in the future is skill in keyboarding, and they don’t have time to spend on teaching both handwriting and keyboarding. That’s the good reason they give for their opposition. I suspect the real reason is that the better kids are at keyboarding, the better they will do on the tests that are mandated by the common core. In some school districts, children as young as eight years old have to be able to drag and drop and type answers on a keyboard so that they can take tests mandated by the core—tests that as far as I can see benefit no one except the those involved in the test industry. Certainly they don’t benefit the third grader who has squirmed and struggled answering questions that are widely seen as too difficult.
Another real reason is that many teachers themselves do not write in cursive and so feel unable to teach it.
Unfortunately proponents do not put forth very strong arguments. One of their favorites is that if kids can’t read cursive, they won’t be able to read our founding documents. Who in the world reads founding documents in the original copperplate? Have you ever? Neither have I; neither have those making this argument. If that were the primary reason kids need to learn to write cursive, proponents of teaching it would lose hands down.
The strongest arguments for teaching of cursive comes from neurological research. And these are powerful arguments. Pity they are not advanced more often.
Since this is National Handwriting Day, it seems like a good time to talk about whether or not we should teach cursive handwriting in elementary school. Almost everyone engaged in the debate, whether pro or con, assumes that a “cursive” handwriting style is one in which all letters are joined with swoops and festooned with loops. It is true that this is what millions of kids in U.S. schools have been taught over the years. The variation of looped cursive I was taught (the Palmer Method) looks like this:
But “cursive” simply means a “running” hand, in which pen lifts are minimized. Fortunately, there is a preferable cursive alternative to the familiar looped varieties. For the past several weeks, I have been teaching myself cursive Italic handwriting with the aid of a workbook. This is the system of handwriting that is taught in European schools and in some private and US public schools as well. It is not a new idea, by any means. Italic handwriting has its roots in the Renaissance. Sometimes the old ways are the best, in this case really old.
There are no loops in Italic handwriting, and not all letter combinations are joined. Yet cursive Italic provides the writer with the means of writing rapidly and consistently.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Italic is that children transition from print to cursive without having to learn a whole new set of letter forms, as they do with a looped cursive hand. Poor little kids. Just when they are getting pretty good at printing, we start all over, usually in third grade, which requires them essentially to unlearn what they ‘ve been doing and learn something entirely different. It’s no wonder that so many opponents of “cursive” are so vehement in their opposition.The printed form that precedes looped cursive involves several pen strokes and is written with the paper held vertically. Sometimes called “ball and stick,” it looks like this:
The printed form of Italic, on the other hand, is slightly slanted, just like the cursive form, and many of the letters are formed with only one stroke of the pen. The transition to the cursive form of Italic occurs in second grade when children are taught to join the letter forms they already know. This is printed Italic:
But why teach cursive handwriting at all? Do we really need it?
This is the argument opponents of cursive handwriting make: They say we don’t need to write by hand because nowadays we almost always communicate written language with the aid of an electronic device. When we need to communicate by hand, we can just print. We should not waste class time teaching something we don’t need.
But that is a very narrow definition of “need.” There is some evidence that the fine muscular control demanded of those learning to write rapidly and continuously by hand yields benefits far beyond the ability to produce a grocery list.There is apparently a vital connection between the brain and the hand that comes into play when one writes connecting letters. I think that this is where the most powerful argument for retaining cursive handwriting in the classroom resides.
There is no doubt that the writing of cursive requires different, more complex movements than tapping a keyboard or printing unconnected letters. The personal experience of those of us who write a lot by hand and the experience of many teachers suggest that the ability to write a flowing hand facilitates creativity, helps memory and promotes learning.
So I say let’s get rid of the wasteful practice of teaching ball and stick printing , drop the loop-de-loop form of cursive that has given so many people fits, and introduce a more efficient, simpler way of teaching kids to connect their letters and eventually develop a mature, legible, and graceful cursive hand.
I intend to return to this subject in future posts. I am particularly interested in finding out what research has been done on the brain/hand connection and how it might influence our opinion about the need for cursive writing. If you’d like to follow along, type your email in the “follow” box and you will receive all future posts by email. Or you can bookmark this site and check in from time to time.
And I’d love to hear your ideas about cursive in our schools. Just leave your comment below. For more on cursive handwriting, type the word “cursive” in the search box.
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?
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.
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!).
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”→