Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Cursive writing

with 3 comments

Recently, I have seen several posts dealing with whether cursive writing and penmanship are important, should be taught in schools, etc. (E.g. [1]e, [2]e.) The comment sections, in particular, have contained a lot of unsound reasoning and preconceived opinions. Below I will look into a number of examples. First, for context and some explanations in advance, my own comments:

Well, when I went to school, I was forced to spend endless hours training my penmanship (with little positive effect, I might add). In contrast, we spent possibly two hours getting a rough introduction to touch typing. Since I left school, by necessity, the vast majority of all my writing is done on a keyboard…

What modern students should be taught is strong touch typing and sufficient handwriting skills (not specifically cursive). If they want to take handwriting further, they can do so on their own time: A key truth to schooling is that there are thousands of topics that would be worthy of inclusion or preservation (in the eyes of at least some), but that time and resources are limited. Schools have a duty to give the students value for their efforts and must make compromises.

Incidentally, those who learn block letters will move more or less automatically to cursive if they do spend a lot of time writing by hand. (I would even consider it plausible that a focus on good block letters is more beneficial for those wanting to write well in cursive than specific “cursive exercises”.) Thus, the extensive teaching of cursive is wasteful even among those who will eventually need it…

‘Please, there is that aspect of caring that is found in a written note. It is like the person is saying, “I know it would be easier to send an email, but I want you to know that I care so much, I wanted to write a letter to you.” ‘

I see it the other way around (on those very rare occasions) when I receive hand-written letters: The author put his or her own convenience (seeing that most people are still weak typists) over mine, leaving me to deal with the problem of interpreting the writing. (Between individual variation and the repeated changes to what is considered “standard” cursive over time, this can be an issue even where good penmanship is concerned.) Further, it leaves me with a text that is likely to be less thought-through and edited than a letter written on a computer. When we go a step further and compare emails to hand-written letters, there is the additional complication that my ability to answer, quote, reference, and re-distribute in an efficient manner is restricted for no good reason.

Correspondingly, to me, a hand-written text of a non-trival size is disrespectful, bordering on rude. (Excluding cases with legitimate reasons, say a sender who does not have access to computers at the moment or who is too old for computer skills to be expected.)

———–

In a bigger context, I note that a number of commenters express the opinion that cursive would be a vital skill, an important part of writing, whatnot—without in anyway substantiating that claim. These I ask to beware that there is nothing magical about cursive writing, but that it just happens to be a convention, something we are used to. This reminds me of the complaint that the children of today would only learn how to read a digital clock and not a “real” clock—yet, there is nothing real about an analog clock that is not real about a digital clock. That someone grow up with analog clocks and only encountered digital ones as an adult may explain a personal preference. This preference, however, is personal and subjective—and none of the two types of clocks is any more or less real than the other.

The loss of cursive writing may be negative, but considering the opportunity cost of spending time and money on cursive writing (cf. my earlier comment) there really is no case: There are thousand of topics, skills, whatnot, that are valuable and beneficial. Not all of them can be mastered in a life-time, let alone in school. Further, cursive writing is certainly not the most important of these.

I would keep the two issues of penmanship and good grammar (spelling, style, whatnot) separate:

The latter is a vital skill and its neglect in modern schooling is a problem—likely, a severe problem.

The former is an entirely independent nice-to-have (although I see how texting and twitter can create the opposite impression). The practical benefits and the need of being able to write well (as opposed to “at all”) with a pen are extremely limited in today’s world. Indeed, I write more words on the computer per day than I do on paper per month. (With reservations for periods when I do a lot of cross-words—but here I write in non-cursive and all-caps to begin with.) Further, what I do write on paper is almost always intended only for my own eyes.

Of course, we could lament the loss of penmanship on an “ars gratia artis” basis, but the same would apply to e.g. the move from fountain pens to ball-point pens, the disappearance of cobblery, or the lack of harpsicord players. There are far too many arts for the active preservation of all as a universal skill—instead the individual must choose which he wishes to pursue.

On to the issues:

  1. A very common theme is the confusion of cursive writing with hand writing or even writing in general:

    The removal of cursive writing does not imply that students are unable to write notes, even letters, and it does certainly not imply that their skills at writing (in terms of e.g. grammar and style) remain undeveloped. On the contrary, these have far better chances when writing on a computer. Notably, the effort and time needed to write a draft is reduced, the draft can be edited (instead of re-written from scratch), re-organisations are far easier, … With computers more time can be spent on the actual text—not just putting down letters on paper.

    Indeed, when I went to school, we were taught an almost mockingly named “writing process”, which consisted of three basic steps: Write the essay on paper. Read through and re-write the essay on paper, making improvements. Read through and re-write the essay on paper, making minor corrections and with a main emphasis on legibility. Honestly, how should a student learn to write with such idiocy? When the vast majority on the time available for the essay had to be spent on merely writing letters on paper, instead of thinking about the contents and the language?

  2. Many commenters simply assert, without giving evidence, that cursive is a vital skill, express their horror at the poor cursive of today’s students, or merely seem to say “I like cursive; ergo, cursive should be taught in schools.”—comments void of convincing power.

  3. Cursive has positive effects on cognitive ability:

    There is no indication that this would be true, except in as far as almost any activity has a positive effect. Now, writing can have a positive effect, but this is not in anyway restricted to cursive writing.

  4. Cursive is good for creativity:

    There is no particular reason to assume this to be the case (and no proof was ever presented). Hand writing may be beneficial over typing in many circumstances (when it comes to the creative process); however, cursive is just a special case of hand writing and not teaching cursive does not imply not teaching hand writing.

  5. Cursive improves fine motor skills:

    This may be, but so do a thousand other things—including normal hand writing. Further, I am not entirely convinced that this argument is valid per se: Coordination develops over time and setting targets for students writing that are too far from their natural level of coordination (as was the case for many students in my own one-size-fits-all schooling) will result in frustration and failure. Certainly, my hand-writing improved as my coordination did—not the other way around. It would then be better to give the students exercises that help them develop their more general motor skills and doing so in a matter that is actually fun—not through the boring and mindless exercises in penmanship.

  6. Cursive is faster than block-letter writing:

    Cursive is what automatically happens over time when a block-letter writer spends a lot of time writing and starts to write faster, which makes this statement both tautological and uninteresting.

    Further, even cursive writing is a lot slower than typing (assuming writers of a comparable training level).

  7. Cursive is needed so that people can sign documents:

    This does not require learning cursive, but just learning the signature. Further, a signature does not have to be cursive. Further yet, the need for handwritten signatures is mostly a legacy issue that will disappear over time. Certainly, for legal documents, digital signatures with private encoding and public decoding keys are far superior.

  8. The issue of a “personal touch” is very common:

    As can be seen from my earlier comments, this is a very one-sided take that ignores that others can see the issue differently: Personal preference is not an indication of an absolute good.

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] the previous post for context.)

  2. According to a report on The Today Show by Jenna Wolfe, 44 states no longer demand that cursive writing be taught in elementary schools. In Indiana and Hawaii, it isn’t even part of the curriculum.

    Why should we care? Even in the 21st Century, writing is an art form. I am not talking about by husband’s signature which is more difficult to decipher than a Jackson Pollock painting, nor the graffiti painted on city walls and the curses and love notes written in bathroom stalls.

    Okay , maybe I support script because I write much faster than I can type. I don’t like typing. For much of my generation of women, it holds the emotions of being told you could be a teacher, nurse or a secretary when you grew up.

    Maybe it’s because I skipped 2nd grade, and my grade 4th grade teacher, Mr. Mc Cory, told my mother that I was doing very well in school, except for my handwriting, I took it upon myself to recopy all of my notes and practice my l’s, r’s and t’s until I had developed a very nice handwriting. What? All this for naught. Just to be told cursive writing doesn’t matter anymore.

    So, when my daughter and son-in-law wrote thank you notes to their friends and mine and to their relatives for their wedding gifts, they could have printed them or downloaded the card and typed on that. Emily Post is shuddering so hard, her bones are clanking.

    As an educator who has taught cursive writing to children, I think it is an important skill to learn. First, it is developing fine motor control which is important in many areas of life. It is not the repetitive rapid motion developed by playing video games or searching on the internet. It teaches visual discrimination which sharpens our eyes and increases our appreciation of the beauty of a flower or the design of a fabric.

    It teaches focus and concentration, so important in this world of rapidly moving images and “sound byte” political statements.

    If we write by hand, we need pencils and pens, and people will design beautiful journals, papers, stationery and cards.

    Not everyone will have an I-Phone in their pocket to read their grocery list. Maybe, I’m old fashioned, but a tweet or a text doesn’t have the same thrill as passing a note to a friend sitting in the next row.

    Like my fingerprints, my hand writing is mine, mine alone.

    Gail Paris – doodlenoodlestuff.wordpress.com

    doodlenoodlestuff

    October 20, 2011 at 2:23 am


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