7 Comments

Is Cursive Necessary?

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As an educational consultant I get all types of questions from teachers. Many questions are reflections as they ponder the ever changing field of education. Recently a teacher asked if other teachers were still teaching cursive handwriting. As we talked about the pros and cons of the topic it was clear she was rethinking her day-to-day schedule.

Education is notorious for “adding” things to teachers’ plates, but not so good at “subtracting.” She had just heard about a variety of intervention ideas to assist students and was trying to figure out how she’d fit an intervention time into her already busy day. Then it dawned on her – what about the time she typically teaches cursive writing.

As we talked she mentioned how excited her students were to start to learn cursive handwriting in 3rd grade. A right of passage! But that excitement dwindled as the study continued. She mention that often students’ small hands are incapable of the dexterity needed to write in cursive successfully.  She also noticed that when students later moved to upper elementary, middles school and beyond cursive wasn’t a requirement, as it was in the past. She questioned if teaching cursive in 3rd grade was the best use of her time if other teachers didn’t seem to require it.

We then started to talk about the reasons why students needed to learn cursive. We both noted that we rarely write in cursive ourselves – basically down to scribbling our name on an electronic screen when we charged something on our credit cards, writing a few checks or signing our name to legal documents. We both use to entice students that they’d need cursive to write checks. That was usually a big hit. Since students today don’t see their parents writing checks like our former students – cursive may seem like a thing of the past. I write about 5 to 10 checks a year. Do students really need to spend 20-30 minutes a day to learn cursive and then hardly be expected to use it later in life?

I asked her if there were reasons she felt students needed to learn cursive handwriting. She mentioned it was helpful to know the cursive alphabet in order to read it. Standardized tests usually seem to add text written in a script type font. That got us thinking. Is learning how to write in cursive the only way to learn how to read it? One idea that emerged from our conversations – rather than learning to write in cursive, what if students were encouraged from time to time to type their own writing in different types of fonts. If students typed their own writing with a script type font, would that help them be able to read that same type of font?

I recalled that when I taught, students loved experimenting with fonts. I accepted their playfulness and inquisitive nature. I would get whole stories written in odd fonts. Some were even hard for me to decipher, but I let them experiment. We would then talk about whether the font helped them, the author, portray their message. Students usually realized that that their choice of font was difficult to for others to read. With a few clicks, the font was changed and their message was clear.

The topic of the necessity of cursive handwriting can be a touchy debate. Some hold on to it as an art form. Others keep it in their curriculum as that is how it has always been. Others are willing to let it go or find other ways to incorporate it. And still others may leave cursive handwriting into their school day because no one has said they could drop it from their curriculum.

I’m curious…

Is cursive handwriting necessary in today’s education?

How do you decide what to keep in your school day? 

How does your school help you eliminate practices as they add others? 

7 Comments

  • Jen Bearden 13 Jul

    HI! I teach in a small district in a suburb of St. Louis, MO. We’re having the same conversations in our area, as well. I am still not sure where I land on this topic (and I’m not sure that our district has officially made a decision yet, either). In many ways I agree that cursive is a “dead language,” so to speak, especially as so many kids are doing so much more online (and in our district specifically this is done with our 1:1 iPad initiative), but can see benefits as well. One argument I’ve heard in favor of keeping cursive is the important connection between actually WRITING and how your brain processes and learns; writing something down connects to different areas of your brain and memory than typing the same information. I’ve heard parents in our district very upset about their high school student not being able to sign their name (i.e. on an application, ACT form, business letter, etc.). I think that perhaps the most compelling thing I have heard is more related to the READING of cursive than the writing of it. There are many important documents–including ones related to our democracy and history of our country–that are written in cursive and students need to be able to access the information within. So while we may not be using it going forward, there is something to be said for using it to connect to the past. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts as I am part of the larger conversation and want to help make an informed decision! Thanks for writing this and continuing to help us chew on this topic. 🙂

    • Kathy Perret 13 Jul

      Thanks, Jen, for your comments. I am hoping others weigh in on their thoughts! The ability to “read” cursive comes up a lot when I listen to teachers. Historical documents serve a purpose – yet how often do we as adults read these documents? Are there other ways to reading the content? Just pondering.

      Thanks for starting this dialogue! Much appreciated!

      Kathy

      • Jen Bearden 13 Jul

        Ha, ha–maybe we should be! Yes, there are other ways to access it, but that would be in it’s purest form, you know? I’m thinking primary sources from other types of history fit into that category, too. But really, I guess I’m falling into the camp of the connection to writing. I am a passionate teacher of writing and definitely know how important it is that we don’t lose the whole pen-and-paper thing from writing process in exchange for only using electronic tools. Even as a writing (and thinker) myself, I know how much more I remember and can process deeply when I actually write it, and cursive helps make that more efficient and quick (although I must insert the detail that I don’t actually write cursive that looks ANYWHERE near how I learned it in school! LOL).

  • Dave 14 Jul

    My son attends a Montessori school. Not only do they teach cursive, but they teach it before they teach printing. The reasoning is that it’s easier for small hands to draw curved lines than straight lines. It’s easier for large hands too; that’s why most of us write in cursive much more quickly than we print. (Of course, most of us type faster still.)

    That said, if my son’s school stopped teaching cursive, I wouldn’t protest. It’s like teaching Latin. Schools used to teach Latin. It would be useful if they still did teach Latin, as it would help kids understand word origins and, thus, spell better. But there’s precious little time in the school day, and learning Latin just isn’t necessary anymore. Same with cursive. This will be the case even more so fifty years from now.

    The historic document argument has never made sense to me. Anyone, adult or child, who wants to read the Constitution isn’t going to get on a plane, fly to Washington, and seek out the original copy. They’re going to Google it and find an online copy in about 10 seconds. How do kids read the Bible if we don’t teach Hebrew? How do they read The Canterbury Tales if we don’t teach Middle English? They find modern translations.

    • Kathy Perret 15 Jul

      Thanks for you comments. I love hearing a variety of perspectives.

      Kathy

  • Kate Gladstone 15 Jul

    Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? Is connecting every last letter really magic? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

    More recently, it has also been documented that cursive does NOT objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia.
    This is what I’d expect from my own experience, by the way. As a handwriting teacher and remediator, I see numerous children, teens, and adults — dyslexic and otherwise — for whom cursive poses even more difficulties than print-writing. (Contrary to myth, reversals in cursive are common — a frequent cursive reversal in my caseload, among dyslexics and others, is “J/f.”)
    — According to comparative studies of handwriting speed and legibility in different forms of writing, the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive — although they are not absolute print-writers either. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all: joining only the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving the rest unjoined, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Reading cursive still matters — but reading cursive is much easier and quicker to master than writing the same way too. Reading cursive, simply reading it, can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds (including those with dyslexia) once they read ordinary print. (There’s even an iPad app teaching kids and others to read cursive, whether or not they write it or ever will write it. The app — “Read Cursive” — is a free download. Those who are rightly concerned with the vanishing skill of cursive reading may wish to visit appstore.com/readcursive for more information.)

    We don’t require our children to learn to make their own pencils (or build their own printing presses) before we teach them how to read and write. Why require them to write cursive before we teach them how to read it? Why not simply teach children to read cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, such as a form of handwriting that is actually typical of effective handwriters?
    Just as each and every child deserves to be able to read all kinds of everyday handwriting (including cursive), each and every one of our children — dyslexic or not — deserves to learn the most effective and powerful strategies for high-speed high-legibility handwriting performance.
    Teaching material for practical handwriting abounds — especially in the UK and Europe, where such handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive which is venerated by too many North American educators. Some examples, in several cases with student work also shown: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/curriculum.html )

    Even in the USA and Canada, educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37% wrote in cursive; another 8% printed. The majority — 55% — wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.
    (If you would like to take part in another, ongoing poll of handwriting forms — not hosted by a publisher, and not restricted to teachers — visit http://www.poll.fm/4zac4 for the One-Question Handwriting Survey, created by this author. As with the Zaner-Bloser teacher survey, so far the results show very few purely cursive handwriters — and even fewer purely printed writers. Most handwriting in the real world — 75% of the response totals, so far — consists of print-like letters with occasional joins.)
    When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why glorify it?

    Believe it or not, some of the adults who themselves write in an occasionally joined but otherwise print-like handwriting tell me that they are teachers who still insist that their students must write in cursive, and/or who still teach their students that all adults habitually and normally write in cursive and always will. (Given the facts on our handwriting today, this is a little like teaching kids that our current president is Richard Nixon.)

    What, I wonder, are the educational and psychological effects of teaching, or trying to teach, something that the students can probably see for themselves is no longer a fact?
    Cursive’s cheerleaders (with whom I’ve had some stormy debates) sometimes allege that cursive has benefits which justify absolutely anything said or done to promote that form of handwriting. The cheerleaders for cursive repeatedly state (sometimes in sworn testimony before school boards and state legislatures) that cursive cures dyslexia or prevents it, that it makes you pleasant and graceful and intelligent, that it adds brain cells, that it instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or that it confers numerous other blessings which are no more prevalent among cursive users than among the rest of the human race. Some claim research support — citing studies that invariably prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident as soon as others examined the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim provides no source,

    or

    /2/ if a source is cited, and anyone checks it out, the source turns out to have been misquoted or incorrectly paraphrased by the person citing it
    or

    /3/ the claimant correctly quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.
    Cursive devotees’ eagerness to misrepresent research has substantial consequences, as the misrepresentations are commonly made — under oath — in testimony before school districts, state legislatures, and other bodies voting on educational measures. The proposals for cursive are, without exception so far, introduced by legislators or other spokespersons whose misrepresentations (in their own testimony) are later revealed — although investigative reporting of the questionable testimony does not always prevent the bill from passing into law, even when the discoveries include signs of undue influence on the legislators promoting the cursive bill? (Documentation on request: I am willing to be interviewed by anyone who is interested in bringing this serious issue inescapably before the public’s eyes and ears.)
    By now, you’re probably wondering: “What about cursive and signatures? Will we still have legally valid signatures if we stop signing our names in cursive?” Brace yourself: in state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
    Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.

    All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual — just as all handwriting involves fine motor skills. That is why any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

    SOURCES:

    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /3/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    Ongoing handwriting poll: http://poll.fm/4zac4

    The research most often misrepresented by devotees of cursive (“Neural Correlates of Handwriting” by Dr. Karin Harman-James at Indiana University):
    https://www.hw21summit.com/research-harman-james

    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:

    A BRIEF HISTORY OF CURSIVE —
    http://youtu.be/3kmJc3BCu5g

    TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING —
    http://youtu.be/s_F7FqCe6To

    HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —
    http://youtu.be/Od7PGzEHbu0

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone —
    DIRECTOR, World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting That Works.com
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
    handwritingrepair@gmail.com
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

    • Kathy Perret 15 Jul

      Thank you for your detailed comment. I appreciate learning from the work you have mentioned.

      Kathy

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