Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Handwriting on the Wall

A recent Washington Post article chronicled the decline of cursive and penmanship instruction in schools.

Apparently, now that an essay is required on the SAT, only 15% of test takers wrote their samples in cursive. Everyone else used block print letters. Why? This is the first generation to grow up with computers available since birth. Most children now type even their early writing assignments. So while schools do a cursory look at cursive, they don't spend hours and hours on it the way they used to.

I have mixed feelings about this, particularly as it relates to gifted children. On one hand, typing requires a lot less fine motor coordination than cursive (and voice recognition software can type for people who can't master a keyboard -- an option not available with pen and paper). One of the things that holds many young gifted writers back is that their fine motor skills haven't developed as fast as their brains and their imaginations. You may have a great story in your head, but it's easy to get frustrated when your fingers make little chicken scratches on a piece of paper. Furthermore, as the Post article notes, studies show that people judge writing more harshly when the handwriting used is poor. Since this has absolutely nothing to do with the content, the widespread use of typing, even in the early grades, should level the playing field in a way that allows insight to triumph over coordination.

On the other hand... My family spent half a school year in California when I was in third grade. My elementary school class in North Carolina learned cursive while I was gone. My California class learned it right after I left. Consequently, I had to (mostly) teach myself the letters. I still am not sure why upper-case Qs look like 2s, but I did discover that I really like making those little squiggles. I write in my journal in cursive. The letters flow quickly in a way that they don't in printed block letters. Research backs this up. Free-flowing letters, the Post notes, correspond to simpler, shorter compositions (that's a good thing, as any teacher who's had to correct a windy, overwrought essay can tell you). Even if you ultimately intend to type, the quick nature of cursive writing has benefits for rough drafts. You can get your thoughts down quickly, then cross out and move sentences around with arrows as you wish.

I'm curious what other people think about the decline of cursive, and whether it's a good or bad thing for young writers. Are your children's schools teaching the topic?


Jim Hoeft said...

I've always been fascinated by the art of cursive.

What's most intriguing to me about cursive is that it is generally taught in a standard way, but almost as soon as it is taught, the individuality of the writer begins to shine through.

I understand your lament loud and clear when it comes to the frustration of having ideas, but struggling with the medium. That was true for me with typing up until just a few years ago. But with practice and persistence, those frustrations gradually fade away. In other words, kids might be frustrated with writing, but I don't think it will stifle them. Plus, patience and persistence is a valuable life lesson.

I also believe that cursive hand-writing is important to developing creativity. It would be interesting if someone has studied this.

At any rate, the art of cursive is quickly evaporating. Could anyone pen the Declaration of Independence these days? It would be a shame if we gave up teaching the art-form (merely for the sake of signing greeting cards!) and it was lost forever.

Anonymous said...

I personally believe that writing composition is far more important than spelling or handwriting.

Our daughter, now 12, left 2nd grade at one school and grade advanced to 3rd at another over Thanksgiving break four years ago. Her teacher gave her a book, which she used to teach herself cursive over Christmas/holiday break She stunned her teachers and us by how effortlessly and beautifully she transitioned. As soon as she passed the grades that cared, she reverted back to printing and typing.

Our 10 yr old son who has excellent writing composition skills still uses his large awkward cursive, which seems so discordant with what he writes. He types his work whenever allowed which I will encourage him to continue.

I categorize spelling and handwriting together. Great skills to have, but not a reason to slow a child’s educational advancement if they are less developed than other areas.

Anonymous said...

We don't teach kids to use slide rules anymore, either. While nice cursive is good for Thank You notes, there are few jobs for which it is a job skill. The jobs my gifted son is interested in (scientist and computer programmer) don't use cursive. I don't use cursive, and I don't feel a gaping hole in my life. You can suggest that cursive is related to creativity, but I personally doubt a study would come anywhere close to proving causality in the cursive->creative direction. Perhaps innate creativity->nice cursive. Writing so that a handwriting/print-recognition program gets fairly accurate results is a useful job skill, but that type of writing is not likely to be beautiful cursive. Where cursive is useful is that it is easier for some kids with fine-motor issues than printing--it keeps the letters together better. I don't mind teaching it, but focusing on making it look "nice" rather than readable should go the way of home ec classes.

Anonymous said...

My son in 3rd grade is just starting to learn cursive writing in school. I'm glad our school teaches it. I think the decline of cursive is negative for young writers and for our society.

I absolutely believe that handwriting is important cognitively and creatively. As a writer myself, I know there is a different level of creativity that emerges when I am handwriting versus keyboarding. Is it something tangible I can quantify or prove? No. But it is something I feel, a sense of a deeper, freer flow of creativity when writing by hand. A deeper connection with the heart as opposed to just the mind.

We live in a fast-paced, complex, ever-changing world. Computer and keyboarding skills are important, of course. But I want to raise children who are well-rounded and appreciate the joy of doing things "by hand" and not simply depending on technology.

Anonymous said...

We live in Texas, and not our district does not teach or encourage cursive writing at all. The reason given was that students will have little use for long-hand writing and would be better "prepared" for life by submitting typed work. Without instruction, not only do our kids not learn to write in cursive, they have difficulty reading it as well.

Quiltsrwarm said...

I sit here looking at our wall plastered with the chalk-board cards showing how to write each of the letters of the alphabet in cursive. I have a son who is chronologically a 4th grader and has not yet learned cursive. And I constantly wonder why should I bother teaching it?

I can't write with pen and paper --carpal tunnel syndrome took care of that. And to echo another post, my life is missing nothing. I am actually more creative on the computer than on paper only because I can type faster than I can write! :*)

I have been teaching my son (actually, encouraging him to practice) cursive, but only so that he can read what other people write when they get sloppy... I believe that cursive is nice to know, but isn't a necessary life skill -- kind of like Latin.

And why is it that a huge exam such as the SAT still requires test takers to use penmanship skills? Especially when, nowadays, everyone uses computers for their school work? For people who are not accustomed to writing essays the hard way (using pen and paper), this portion of the SAT must be excruciating -- aren't these things timed? Talk about test-taking stress! Ugh... don't get me started...

My 2cents... :)

Anonymous said...

Cursive... hmmm.
As a gifted teenager, I have battled with this issue for a large amount of time, but not in the typical way. While my short stories which have been typed at ferociuos speeds were recipients of major creative writing awards, my english teacher consistently bores her graphite pencil into my innocent journal, circling words that she defines as being 'illegible'.

As my handwriting gradually fails, I feel I have no choice but to respond with a rebuttual to Jim hoeft. You argued that when it comes to handwriting and gifted kids, was that 'it won't stifle them.'
Whilst my ideas for stories are gushing from my fingertips, I often find that teachers consistently marks down my work, due to my lack of co-ordination with my biro. Comments I've received include "If only I could read it...". I've tried for years to improve, but with no success.
Perhaps 'handwriting computers' should be invented and introduced to schools, or maybe teachers should just learn to tolerate our difficulties, and bother to read our work.

Anonymous said...

I was secretly early enterenced back in the sixties. Although I could more than keep up with the learning, the skill of neatness in general, and neat handwriting in particular, was a terrible struggle (spelling also - obviously) When my mom sent me to summer school to learn to type at age 13 - I was set free! I don't know if cursive should be taught or dropped, but I do know that demanding it unfairly penalizes age accelerated students.

Anonymous said...

My son has been allowed to keyboard since third grade because his frustration with handwriting greatly reduced his written production. Prior to that intervention, I think it would be fair to say that his writing was stifled. His written work became much more creative and imaginative as a result.

When he first learned cursive, it seemed a life saver. His writing was finally at least legible, and he still uses cursive writing for note-taking. He prints (slowly) now if he is trying to make a final handwritten draft of something, but if he can, he types it, even if it is math homework.

Evan Adams said...

My thing with teaching cursive in school is that it is *so* much easier to learn as an adult. After struggling with cursive (and writing by hand in general) until I got to a high enough grade that a) I could just type things and b) if I wrote in block capitals (which I still do) people didn't assume it was because I didn't know how to use lowercase letters, I abandoned it completely. Last year (I'm 24 now), I needed cursive for an art project, and was able to get a handle on it in a couple of hours.
I'm a writer, and I often draft by hand, but that's in the privacy of my own notebook, where no one but me has to be able to read it. My handwriting was totally illegible until I was 15, when I switched to writing in block capitals, and it's still what might charitably be called "messy". 90% of my use of cursive is for noting italicised words in handwritten drafts, because underlining for emphasis bothers me.