Sunday, July 10, 2011

Don't Ditch Cursive Writing!

There is no little amount of irony that I am "writing" this diatribe against Indiana's recent decision to quit requiring the teaching of cursive writing to students in favor of concentrating on keyboard skills while I am sitting on my living room sofa with my feet up, typing the essay on my laptop computer. My fingers fly over the keyboard, connected by "invisible wires" to the internet via a modem and a router that sit two rooms away. No paper, pens or ink will be involved at any point.

(Don't be fooled by the fact that I can use the words "modem" and "router" in a sentence, my technology skills are such that I still swear that interruptions in my wireless service are caused by pieces of dust on the internet highway.)

And yet...despite the fact that I personally work at various times from four different computers; blog regularly on four or five different websites; have been known to upload photos to my website from a table at Starbucks using a flash drive and a laptop, and routinely file electronic legal briefs with the court system with a few keystrokes, I still think the Indiana decision is a really bad one on a truly epic scale.

Losing the connectivity of cursive writing feels a bit like losing a shared language--a universally understood way of communicating that was instantly recognizable unless practiced by doctors signing prescriptions. The Indiana rationale was based on forward thinking, which has been the root of many really bad decisions, from nearly exterminating the wild bison of the Western plains to creating the atom bomb. Our wired society depends more and more on keyboard skills, the theory goes, and so that's where the emphasis should lie.

My first thought, of course, was from the practical side: so what do you do for communication when the power goes out? I asked that recently of my artist daughter, a fabulously creative child of this technology age. "Print," she replied practically. I posed the same question a day later to a pair of twenty year olds traveling to a Renaissance Faire with myself and my love, so that we could immerse ourselves in an atmosphere of greenswards and chivalry and party like it was 1599. "Print," they replied also, although one noted that a relative had had trouble with a passport application because he had printed his signature rather than writing it in cursive. Aha! I thought, strike a blow for detective work and the need on occasion for handwriting analysis.

Still, no one seemed to think that a temporary power outage would significantly curtail our ability to communicate in writing with one another. I guess they weren't as moved as I was by the turning point in the movie "Independence Day," where the pockets of rebel resistance around the globe were finally able to coordinate a battle plan against the evil alien invaders by bypassing current technology and communicating via Morse code. I suppose one could always print a message to be sent by carrier pigeon.

Various wits on the web weighed in and likened cursive writing to teaching the lost art of butter churning, learning how to hitch a horse, or how to make a quill pen, missing the point entirely that butter churning and snaffle bits have absolutely nothing to do with the moving of ideas from one mind to another.

I'm sure that there are reams of educators and statisticians who can calibrate just how our brains light up and work and process when we push a pen in linear, looping fashion to record our thoughts rather than let our ten digits dance on a keyboard. I'm sure that there are many educators who will opine on whether some important examinations and applications still carry a component of a written essay, or whether handwritten test answers might sometimes have a greater guarantee of authenticity and origination than something sent via computer.

But what I keep coming back to in my own mind is that feeling once again of a shared language, and the channeling of ideas and words into a flowing stream. I write differently when I put pen to paper, flashing synapses of discovery traveling with single minded intensity through the nerves and muscles in my arm, reaching the fingers of one hand and flowing through on to paper that I can physically touch like a flower bud unfolding. With a keyboard, the words can sometimes fly along just as fast as I can think them, diffuse, not terribly focused, in need of revisiting and moving around and cutting and pasting, my thoughts a mile wide and an inch deep.

That changes when I pick up a legal pad and a comfortable pen, and have to slow my thoughts down so that the words emerging on the page can catch up. Sometimes the thoughts are deeper. Sometimes they are totally surprising, like something from Pandora's box got loose as they were stuck in traffic.

I have no intention of giving up my computers, or my typing proficiency, or returning to the age of quill pens and inkwells, just to make a point. But I remember hiking to some bluff headlands along Lake Michigan a few summers ago, with a notebook and a pen, and writing--quickly and in cursive, of course--while the sun sparkled on the water and the red columbines danced in the wind beside me, and gulls soared beneath the cliff edge. My soul opened up, and the words poured out on to the lined paper, in fluid lines and loops and channeled into linear thoughts. I did not feel the lack of a laptop or a smart phone or an iPad in that place, where the smell of evergreens was like perfume and fox kits tumbled together over the next rise. I hope that children in this next generation won't find themselves in a similar beautiful place, moved by nature around them but without a way to simply write things down.

1 comment:

KateGladstone said...

Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

Reading cursive matters, but can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there's even an iPad app to teach how: named "Read Cursive.") So why not simply teach children to read cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, including some handwriting style that's actually typical of effective handwriters?

Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority — 55 percent — wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

Cursive's cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, adds brain cells, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

What about signatures? 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 writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which student produced it.

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


Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

/1/ 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

/2/ 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

Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at

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



(shows how fine motor skills are developed in handwriting WITHOUT cursive) —

[AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
and the World Handwriting Contest