Should We Kill Cursive?

Below are our posts exploring the possible end of the practice and teaching of cursive handwriting.


May 1, 2013 @ 6:43pm
Morgan Polikoff nods:

Cursive should be allowed to die. In fact, it’s already dying, despite having been taught for decades. Very small proportions of adults use cursive for their day-to-day writing. Much of our communication is done on a keyboard, and the rest is done with print. Additionally, there is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching. While both research and common sense indicate students should be taught some form of penmanship, there is simply no need to teach students both print and cursive.

Kate Gladstone is on the same page:

Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?


May 2, 2013 @ 3:58pm

Ctd…

A reader’s response:

No, we should not kill cursive.  My children attend a Montessori school where it’s still taught and I see many benefits.  First of all, building the muscles and eye/hand coordination necessary to use a pen or pencil is important and takes practice.  For many it’s as close as we get to drawing.  You can’t just magically expect to be able to write when you need to without practice.  Second, there is still a need to write by hand quickly and legibly, regardless of any technical revolution.  I have taken many classes where anything other than a regular notebook would not have worked, and was glad to know how to write legibly and quickly.

And lastly, sometimes the medium is as important as the message.  My husband wrote me hundreds of emails from Iraq when he was deployed there, and two handwritten letters.  Can you guess which of those notes I still read?  To know he held that paper in his hands and wrote that he loved me while so far away meant more than an electronic message that looked like I could have written it to myself.  Why would we rob children of the chance to learn a skill that is both beautiful and practical?  I’m glad my kids can write in cursive.

Another reader:

I suppose that we should also kill signatures while we’re at it (though they are, albeit very slowly, suffering a collective death-by-technology in their own right). I would venture to guess that the majority of adult signatures evolve from a very basic, teen-aged cursive exercise.

Another:

My mother’s cursive writing was magnificent, and I spent years trying unsuccessfully to copy it.  I have never been able to master her “W.” My signature is the closest I ever came to emulating her writing:

Betty sig small

I know why cursive is dying, but allow me to mourn.


May 6, 2013 @ 8:02am

Ctd…

Contribute your two cents to the growing thread:

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A reader writes:

Is it that Polikoff and Gladstone are under the impression that teaching children to write in cursive somehow takes up too much time? Or that children are vessels into which we can only fit so much, and therefore we should not try to teach them anything “unnecessary”? Pure hogwash on both counts. Learning to write legibly and speedily by hand is, in my own humble experience, invaluable. Any endeavor that requires note-taking in any real degree, especially in real time, becomes immensely more easy and pleasurable if one writes well in cursive, and it’s much faster than “print” letters.

And think about the utilitarian logic of not teaching “unnecessary” things to children. Should we not teach them music, drawing, singing, dancing, sports or any other of the manifold pursuits that give life depth and richness but do not technically serve any real economic purpose? Preposterous.

Furthermore, writing well and attractively by hand deepens our engagement with our language, instills respect for the written word, and frankly just looks better, in my opinion. It also isn’t really very hard. Like most worthwhile things, it just takes practice. And I reject this silly sophistry that says making things beautiful, and teaching kids to do simple, humble things like writing nicely is something we don’t have the resources or time to give them. Instilling in them a deep sense of craft, and of craftsmanship, is in fact of the highest importance.

Another reader who defends cursive:

The greatest lesson I ever learned came from an idealistic young woman who spent a year in the late sixties teaching sixth grade at the American Community School in Hampstead between gigs with the Peace Corps.  When asked by a fellow student why we were studying a seemingly insignificant thing, she replied, “You’re not here to learn stuff.  You’re here to practice how to learn stuff, because no matter how old you get, you will always need to learn.”

Another:

Cursive, as it’s taught in schools now, was actually not intended to be for handwriting.  “Looped cursive,” with its letters that look nothing like print, originally comes from letterforms inscribed FontinAustraliaby copperplate engravers.  Credit for this knowledge goes to Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay, calligraphers who for years have had a side gig running handwriting improvement workshops for doctors!  They also take issue with the “ball and stick” method of teaching print handwriting, as each letter often requires two or more strokes, and advocate instead for italic-style handwriting, which is much more natural (I’ve attached the best comparison I can find).  As an added bonus, italic handwriting easily transitions into cursive.

Who knows if any of this will be relevant in the digital age, but apparently the difficulty of writing in cursive also assists memory.


May 6, 2013 @ 4:45pm

Ctd…

A reader differs with the previous ones:

Why do so many cursive defenders use the defense of the sentimental value of handwritten notes vs. emails as some sort of strength inherent to cursive? As a product of architecture school, I write almost entirely in capital lettering, and my wife generally prints as well. Yet somehow we still find the notes/letters/cards that we write to each other to be meaningful and cherished, despite their utter lack of cursive.

In today’s world, cursive is a luxury, not a necessity. If someone chooses to spend their time learning and perfecting it, more power to them. If a school wants to offer cursive courses to individuals such as that, that’s great too. But to force every student to spend a significant amount of time learning a skill that’s nowhere near necessary anymore is just silly. Doubly so when you consider some of the far more useful skills (like basic personal financial planning) that schools tend to leave out.

Another dissenter:

I’m 26.  I was taught cursive in elementary school, and I used to be pretty good at making my writing look pretty, but I found it slow and irritating.  I was mercifully instructed in middle school that I did not need to write in cursive any more and never looked back.  The most I can do at this point with any degree of speed is sign my name.

That came back to bite me in the ass when I took the SATs and GREs. When you take those exams, there is a paragraph you have to write in cursive that you attest that you are who you say you are, and aren’t cheating.  It took me nearly the entire time allotment and I nearly ran out of space on the lines provided.  By the end I just printed and connected the letters after I had finished the sentence. I still remember that as the most stressful part of either exam.

Another had a similar experience:

This cursive discussion is giving me flashbacks to one memorable panic attack that nearly blew my LSAT before it even began. For anyone who’s ever subjected themselves to the sado-masochism of the LSAT , they may recall one particular pre-test registration section that requires not filling in bubbles, but for each test taker to transpose a statement certifying their identity and their adherence to the test rules. It sounds simple enough, until the proctor instructs you to, “Write this statement IN YOUR NORMAL HANDWRITING.  It must NOT BE PRINTED.”  (I am NOT the only person for whom transcribing that short paragraph in “script” or “cursive” posed a serious fucking problem.)

The exam was in a massive gymnasium at UMass Boston with about 300 other people. I don’t know whether it was just test-day nerves that made me freeze up, or more likely the fact I hadn’t written anything in cursive/longhand longer than my signature since about 4th grade or so. But I began to shake uncontrollably; I couldn’t even put my pencil to the paper because my hand was so spastic. Even gripping and trying to steady my writing hand and pencil with the other hand couldn’t stop it. And then all at once, I drew a complete blank on even the most basic, grade school ups-and-downs and simple swoops to create even a single letter. Shaking, just staring horrified at lines of illegible chicken-scratch when the proctor called out over the mic that we had one minute before the exam would begin.

And that was when the full-body seizing began. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I’d stopped breathing entirely. When I started blacking out, I managed to raise my hand, and then somehow yell out to the proctor and 300 horrified test takers, “I think I’m having a medical emergency!” It wasn’t til the proctor got me breathing again and swigging some OJ that I finally got my shit together, only to then have to take that fucking test for five fucking hours.

I’d never had a panic attack before, and haven’t had one since.  Hell yes, kill cursive.

Read the whole thread here. More reader thoughts on our Facebook page.


May 8, 2013 @ 9:42am

Ctd…

A reader continues the popular thread:

No cursive?  Tell that to my dyslexic daughter.  She mastered writing and decoding through cursive (using the Slingerland method [illustrated above], which is an excellent multi-sensory approach).  Print reading and writing caused too much confusion precisely because so many printed letters look similar and/or a variants of each other (e.g. the typical b and d).  She went form being behind in her class to not only zooming up to grade with reading and writing, but was fluent in cursive a full year+ before her classmates.  Among many devices Slingerland uses a methodology of tracing the cursive letters in the air while seeing and saying them.  It’s brilliant, and not just for dyslexics.  Lots of research there to look at.

As for hand-eye-motor-brain coordination that is developed through handwriting and penmanship.  I believe there is ample evidence of it’s benefits in learning.  Being a product of that world versus pure keyboarding, which the new generation is being brought up on, I don’t have any direct experience.  THAT is a fascinating question.  How will our brains and motor skills develop and change when tots only use keyboards?

A reader with a different condition writes:

As a child, handwriting class was uniquely humiliating for me. I stopped breathing shortly after I born, which damaged my cerebellum. As a result, my penmanship was an unsightly, illegible scrawl. Many times my instructors would berate me despite the fact that I could do nothing to correct the problem. I would be graded down on my assignments simply because my instructors didn’t want to read my sloppy answers, even when they were right. One classmate even saw my class notes and said to me, “Dan, I didn’t know you could write in Chinese.” I cannot.

Learning to type, although I do it clumsily and slowly, was a revelation. People could finally understand my writing, and it was easier for me to send messages that looked and read like they were the work of a professional. Writing anything by hand still fills me with dread. I even hate writing checks. I now make my living writing computer instructions, so all of the time I spent in school studying how to make perfect cursive letters seems like a waste. I envy people who write beautiful flowing letters, but feel no nostalgia towards creating anything like that myself.


May 13, 2013 @ 8:02am

Ctd…

Another twist on the popular thread:

I have a perspective on cursive that may be shared by a sizable minority: left-handers. It’s hard enough for us lefties to print, let alone to write in an “artistic” cursive style. In elementary school, handwriting lessons were downright traumatic for me. I had such a hard time following the precise loops and whorls, and connecting every letter in one continuous line was just impossible. Handwriting was the only subject I ever failed in school, and I failed it every single year in elementary school. To this day, I can concentrate hard enough to write maybe two words in cursive before I devolve into the hybrid chicken scratch that is my personal handwriting style.

What’s worse, I see this trauma being passed down through the generations in my family. My leftie father always wrote in block letters because he couldn’t write one word in cursive. Now I see my four-year-old, left-handed daughter struggling with printing and I worry about how she’ll deal with cursive.

I understand the readers who would miss the beauty of cursive, and feel that children shouldn’t learn only instrumental skills. But I would say this: We may want children to learn about and appreciate art, but it would be impractical and somewhat cruel to force every child to be able to paint a realistic, recognizable portrait. I second your previous reader: “Hell yeah, kill cursive.”


May 21, 2013 @ 8:31am

Ctd…

From our reader poll (blue=yes, orange=no):

Screen Shot 2013-05-21 at 2.37.13 AM

That 39% jumps to 50% among readers 35 and older, while only 28% of millennials say they use cursive. Among female readers, 63% use cursive, while only 30% of male readers do the same. And among all readers, a minority of 41% believe teachers should stop teaching cursive to children. Below are some remaining thoughts on the popular thread:

Cursive defenders all point to the supposed note-taking benefits of cursive. That’s absurd – if we wanted to teach a useful form of writing for transcription, we’d teach shorthand. Beyond that, writing faster encourages the wrong kind of note-taking. We shouldn’t be trying to transcribe whatever we’re listening to, but instead to synthesize it and take down notes about the key points. A professor of mine in law school banned laptops for exactly that reason – it encouraged transcription, not note-taking. Once I stopped trying to write down everything, my notes were far more useful, because the only thing they contained were the important parts.

These days, I take notes constantly just as part of being a lawyer. I do it on paper, with a pen. In print. Cursive wouldn’t help, so why did I learn it? The last time I wrote in cursive was the sworn statement on the bar exam. Before that, on the LSAT. It just has no relevance to modern life. For everything that isn’t taking a verbatim transcript, print is at least as good as cursive (and typically easier for others to read). For verbatim transcripts, shorthand is better. For long-form writing, typing is better. What benefit does cursive have left?

Another reader:

The only reason we’re having this discussion is because most of us, for more than 100 years, have been taught only the (frankly horrible) “Palmer System” of cursive handwriting. The Palmer Method is a style of cursive composed of an entirely different set of letterforms than the manuscript (“printing”) we start with, and requires a dexterity unattainable to most 3rd graders. The result? Most people never give a thought to any remedial handwriting practice, and they rarely pass beyond whatever facility they may have had when they were eight.

Austin Palmer’s primary goal was to sell his textbooks and materials. In this, he was wildly successful. The Palmer Method’s quirky letterforms are an artifact of this (the better to differentiate your product). And they’re just plain difficult to achieve – born of an era that considered denial of the body a virtue, no thought was given to natural movement.

Compare this to the various types of Italic/Humanist miniscule. These are easily formed, easily read letters, and for the most part, the only difference between the manuscript and cursive forms are whether or not your raise your pen. No entirely new alphabets, no frankly tortured letterforms-as-trademark (I’m still confounded by Palmer’s capital F and lowercase r). Thornton’s Handwriting in America: A Cultural History is a nice overview of what Palmer hath writ, and Inga Dubay has made several very good instructional works that serve as wonderful introductions to a more suitable hand.

Another reader injects some cursive in the Dish:

Seyes ruling example

Another:

Wow, your anti-cursive-teaching readers are talking about cursive like it’s copperplate calligraphy! It’s just cursive, folks! It’s actually lazier than print! You don’t have to pick up your pen. As someone who, quite literally, cannot draw a straight line without a ruler, I’m sympathetic to the people who had a hard time with cursive, but I think their bad experience doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught. I think it means teachers should allow that a small fraction of their students will never master it and stop docking their work for being a bit unsightly.

My case for why learning cursive is not a waste of time:

1) It’s taught in elementary school, where part of the goal is to get you familiar with how your hands work, learn about what’s in the larger world, and learn a useful skill. Doing drills is good for practicing fine motor skills, whether or not you ever succeed in the task. Cursive is used extensively in the world, and one needs to know it.

2) Cursive is one of the few times in early ed when we learn that there are multiple solutions to a problem. Yes, keyboarding is another solution to the problem of putting words to paper. But I remember having my mind blown a little bit in third grade when I learned that a giant, curly 2 was actually a Q. That a printed and cursive “f” were very different. After learning cursive, I was even able to puzzle out other fonts, whereas before I had no clue. But once I knew the various forms each letter could take, the number of written items I had independent access to, without having to get an adult to read it for me, went up enormously.

3) Any number of documents throughout the years have been written in cursive or other script. Anyone wanting to do genealogy or historical research had better have some familiarity with cursive. And without the drilling in it in elementary school, they probably wouldn’t.

4) Cursive aside, writing clearly is a useful skill. Whether or not you use it beyond that class is up to you, but the vast majority of us write things down. Cursive – or some pidgen version of it – is generally faster than print. Learning to write faster is useful. It’s not like calligraphy, with specific styles and harder rules, and slower execution. Third graders don’t have much room to negotiate with teachers, but maybe they should. We had one kid in our 5th grade class that was allowed to turn in assignments from a dot-matrix printer due to his abysmal handwriting, and the fact that his family had an early computer. Because our teachers were reasonable people. He tried, they negotiated, and came to a workable solution. Everyone else could write sufficiently well. Even me with my spastic fingers.

Morgan Polikoff gets the last word:

Since my quote started the Dish thread on cursive, I thought I’d go one more round. Before I start, I thought I’d mention just how amazing this story is to me. I did a one-off interview with the LA Times about cursive, and it’s become the most talked-about thing I’ve done or written (somewhat humbling to this academic who’s trying to do good research on other, much more important policies). The key point to me is that every single pro-cursive argument that’s made is very easy to rebut. Just running through the ones that have appeared in this thread:

1) Handwriting builds muscles and hand/eye coordination. True, but this applies to print and cursive – no evidence cursive is better than print.

2) There is a need write quickly and legibly. Actually, there rarely is (basically note-taking and test-taking in school is the only time in life this is needed). But if speed was the concern, keyboards are way faster than cursive. And if keyboards aren’t nearby and speed is paramount, we should teach kids shorthand.

3) Handwritten notes are more meaningful than typed. I agree with this, but again it applies to print and cursive.

4) Signatures need cursive for security. Actually this is not true. But if we were really concerned about security, we’d have moved past signatures now anyway – they’re not very secure at all. How about retina scans or fingerprints?

5) It can be beautiful. This one I agree with, but it’s hardly a reason to spend lots of instructional time on it. Needlepoint is also beautiful.

6) There’s plenty of time to do it. Well, to do it well takes a lot of time, and our teachers are already very strapped for instructional time. Furthermore, cursive isn’t included in the new Common Core content standards adopted by 45 states. Asking teachers to add things on top of the content standards dilutes the messages of those standards and leads to a cluttered, mile-wide inch-deep curriculum (which we already have).

7) Writing beautifully deepens our connection with the language. Not sure exactly what this means, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t also apply to print. Calligraphy is more beautiful than cursive – let’s teach that.

8) Not everything we teach has to be “useful.” This one I can buy as well. But it’s not an argument for keeping cursive per se, just an argument for a different philosophy about what to teach in general.

9) Research says it helps the brain. Actually almost all of the research is about handwriting instruction in general, not cursivehandwriting in particular. Including basically every study linked in the article cited by your reader.

10) Dyslexic kids learn well from cursive. This one does have some merit, but then the Yale Dyslexia Center says keyboarding is much better than cursive.

I could go on, but you get the point. There just isn’t a compelling reason that cursive should be taught to every student. Irealize this is some kind of cultural hornet’s nest I’ve stumbled into, but can we please just move on and let this thing die? As with gay marriage, we all know it’s going to happen sooner or later. Let’s get there sooner and save everyone the grief.


(Thread thumbnail image: Example of Spencerian script by D.L. Musselman (from 1884) via Wikimedia Commons)