Why do we still teach cursive handwriting?

Post ImageI’m generally pretty happy whenever I get the opportunity to show off my Tablet PC, especially when my audience has never seen one before. It happened again Friday afternoon, and the expected “oohs” and “ahhs” filled the room. Usually I fold up my tablet so that the keyboard is hidden, and then I encourage onlookers to try writing in OneNote. Most people very quickly write “hello” or their name in block letters. On Friday however, someone wrote a sentence in cursive handwriting. I remarked that I simply can’t do cursive handwriting anymore, which led to a pretty interesting discussion.

Essentially we wondered aloud why cursive handwriting is still taught in elementary school. I remember learning it in grade three or so, but I simply can’t do it now. If I try, I really have to concentrate, and I just don’t remember what some of the letters are supposed to look like. The only thing I write in cursive these days is my name. The rest of the time I am either on the computer, or scribbling in my messy “print-writing” (where it’s mostly printing with a few letters connected). Why would anyone use cursive handwriting in this digital age? And if the answer to that is “pretty much no one,” then why do we still teach it?

The entry on Wikipedia provides just two reasons:

  • Cursive is easier and faster once mastered. There is no need to constantly pick up the pencil point and put it down again.
  • Cursive may be especially useful for certain students with learning disabilities such as dysgraphia because it has fewer letters that are mirror images of one another, such as the printed b and d, and so may be easier for students who are prone to mixing them up. In some schools, students with such learning challenges are taught cursive before print.

I think the first point is pretty much negated by typing, and the second point is only relevant for a relatively small number of individuals. I suppose another reason not mentioned on Wikipedia would be that cursive handwriting looks nice. My Mom’s handwriting, for example, is quite simply beautiful.

When you think about it, teaching cursive handwriting is really stupid. You generally can’t submit any assignments in junior high, high school, or post-secondary unless they are typed on a computer. What’s the point of learning it then?

Furthermore, I seem to recall that handwriting lessons took quite a bit of class time. Isn’t there something more useful we could be teaching children in place of handwriting?

29 thoughts on “Why do we still teach cursive handwriting?

  1. I’d have to agree with you 100%.

    Interestly though, "cursive writing" is North American – the idea that each letter has a specific set of strokes. In England I was taught to write "joined up writing" where the letters have a regular print shape, but certain letters have a way that they can join up to the next letter. I used to like to join all of them up 🙂 – they made us use a fountain pen at the time (with ink well) so I bought pens that had built-in cartridges and didn’t waste my time taking the pen of the paper. Also in the UK, they move from pencil to regular ink pens when you get into high school – this is actually a good thing since it prevents people spending ages erasing things that, if simply crossed through once, may still get marks on an exam. Ink erasers don’t work very well so it also encouraged people to think carefully about what they wrote.

    I went an did night-school typing (on real type writers) because they didn’t offer the course on BBC or RM PC computers at the time, and I loathe writing by hand now.

    There are schools in Canada that insist on a hand-written rought draft because they think it may otherwise be more easily plagiarised and that the spell checker is doing all of the work. On the latter point, a computer is a tool and that is what it’s supposed to do but it is far from infallible.

  2. I think that we’re doing a piss poor job of penmanship. Even in our society, not everyone can afford a computer, therefore we can’t assume that people can type. You’ve seen the writing of some of my kids…it’s atrocious.

    The other thing I find is that spelling is getting worse, because so many people use internet shorthand in everyday writing. And it drives me nuts.

    We don’t require our kids to use computers for assignments, because for the most part, they’re not going to be able to use computers on their written exams (let’s not talk about the atrocity of writing 6 hours of exams for English and Social and then using those marks as 50% of the final). But because no one seems to care what the writing LOOKS like, we have a hard time marking stuff because we can’t read it.

    It becomes a double edged sword in that we are trying to foster THOUGHT, but no emphasis is placed on how it looks. I know it shouldn’t matter, but we place so much emphasis on appearance in EVERYTHING that it becomes a requirement of handing stuff in.

  3. Colin – I thought cursive handwriting meant "joined together"? That’s what I was referring to. Interesting about the schools that insist on hand-written rough draft, hadn’t thought of that.

    Megan – I know what you mean about the writing of your kids. I think the "not everyone can afford a computer" is not important though. You don’t have to own one. Every library, employment agency, school, or other "public" place has computers available for use. There’s not much room for excuse anymore.

    The part about spelling getting worse is indeed very sad. That said, handwriting as opposed to typing isn’t going to fix it. And the marking of hand-written exams (which should be typed!) must be hard…glad I am not a teacher!

  4. Go into any school in Canada and look for the cursive letter alphabet stuck on the wall somewhere. Each letter has a specific styling (like an ‘r’ or a ‘q’ but with lots of swishes in it). English joined up writing is just plain printed characters with rules on which ones can join (e.g. g can’t join).

    I think not having to worry about penmanship frees up the author to concentrate on the content. English grammer and spelling should be preserved though; I agree.

    Exams should be taken on a computer these days. Let’s not go on about how slow universities and schools are at handing back marked assignments and exams.

  5. Well I have to disagree on this on. Although I am a poor handwriter, I steadfastly belive in written communication for certain purposes, and handwriting is frankly the benchmark for all personalized letters, and notes.

    But then again, I am the type of person who has personal stationary, and look forward to the opportunity to send a written letter or note to a new or old friend. Digitally produced messages, email or printed, simply do not extend the same level of warth and personality. Then again I am an old man at 35 😉

  6. Chris and Shermie: that was my Mom’s argument too, when I talked to her about this. She said she likes to receive something personal in the mail. I recall this was my instructor’s argument in ENGL 304 at the UofA too.

    I guess I’ve just never been able to wrap my head around that.

  7. The etymology of the word "cursive" contradicts the guess that it can mean only "joined together": "cursive" comes from a Latin word that means "running," not "joining." Many cursives join few or no letters (e.g., early Roman cursive and modern Hebrew cursive) – some of the most cursive writing systems (such as written Arabic and many UK styles) in fact forbid joining certain letters to and/or from certain others.

    Re dysgraphia and cursive: as a self-remediated dysgraphic who became a handwriting improvement specialist, I may know a bit about this. In my experience and observation, many dysgraphics (myself included) had and had immense, insuperable difficulties with cursive: despite our teachers’ and therapists’ claims that theoretically cursive "must" work best for us. My cursive difficulties, for instance (like the difficulties of many students of mine) have included reversal difficulties which theoretically "cannot" happen in cursive. I’ve had very good results using Italic and teaching it to my fellow dysgraphics, then using Italic as a base for teaching them to read (not necessarily write!) the cursive written by others. (Dysgraphia/LD organizations inviting me to speak sometimes abruptly withdraw the invitations at the last minute when it becomes clear to them that my presentation and personal history challenge the groups’ "cursive-is-best-for-them" pravda.

  8. Ghotit (www.Ghotit.com) offers unique writing and reading online services for people who suffer from dyslexia, dysgraphia or people who are not native-English speakers. Ghotit’s first service is an online context sensitive spell checker.

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  9. Ugggh! I am a high school teacher, I insist my students write in ink and cursive. This not only helps them keep up with the note-taking process, but also helps them retain the information they are writing. Typing does not provide for the same retention, printing is too slow. It is easier (and less-costly)to carry a pen, than lug around a computer. I will stop now, before I begin to rant!

    1. If I were a parent of one of your students we would have to have a serious converation about that policy.  I don’t think there is definitive evidience that cursive is that much faster.  I generally use print, although I can write in cursive.  That is the problem with classrooms, teachers create standards based on their personal perferences as opposed to clear research or the evolution of instruction and the world.  The good old “that’s how we’ve always done it argument.”  That rationale is why the US continues to fall behind – not b/c the kids aren’t smart enough but because we refuse to prepare them for a global 21st century world.  Now I will stop before I begin to rant. 

      1. I agree with you Smsilver1, and I am a fourth grade teacher.  My daughter who just graduated from high school struggles to remember the cursive letters she was taught in 3rd and 4th grades because everything she writes–essays, texts, emails is done on the computer or her phone. She does not send out birthday cards, she says “happy birthday” to people on Facebook. She does not need to sign her name on a check blank because she has a debit card. She does not take notes with pen and paper (like I do) because she can do that task on her laptop. She did handwrite her graduation thank you’s, but many of her friends sent out photo postcards with a typed message of thanks. She is bright, articulate, and an excellent writer. (And by “writer” I mean a person who composes meaningful text.) As she heads to college, I am not worried about her inability to write fluently in cursive.  If she had truly needed that skill, she would still possess it.  Cave men and women used to write on walls. Just because something was once meaningful and helpful doesn’t mean it always will be. 
        It is my opinion that cursive handwriting needs to fade out of the school curriculum.

      2. Hi,

        I am a mother of two and had to say, I was raised by my grandmother. Each Sunday, I had to get the newspaper and write the article that she wanted me to. After time, whenever I was bored, I would take the newspaper and write in cursive.This is the problem that I see in this country and so many others. Children are not pushed to work harder or motivated to do it. When I was in high school, I had three years of typing classes but all my other classes where just in writing. I was taught to do my best and learn harder because to us it was like a competition to see who was doing better. Up to this date, I enjoy learning and new challenges because of things like these. I will teach my children cursive because It helped me to keep in my mind that education IS important, no matter how small the task is.

  10. People dont have to walk or jog, now that we have cars and bikes, does that mean they should not bother anymore?

    People dont have to read, now that we have electronics that can convert text into sound, does that mean people should not read any more?

    To me, this is the kind of attitude that is making the world lazy, and why obesity is becoming an epidemic. People just cant be arsed to do things because they dont ‘have’ to.

    No you dont HAVE to do alot of things in the modern age, but getting rid of them just because you are unwilling to practice or improve upon your skills, is no different to a child whining that they just cant ‘do’ it. (Where the truth is, they just dont WANT to do it)

    Stepping off my soap box now 😛

  11. I ran across this site while looking for statistics to back up my theory that cursive writing is important. I’m about to teach my 10th grade English students persuasive essay writing and wanted to model persuasive writing using a pro-cursive writing argument. With that said, I still believe that learning to write in cursive is valuable. I know the arguments that it’s an antiquated writing form that is no longer necessary because of computers. However, having spent most of my adult life in the business world I would argue that it is a valuable tool within the business community if for no other reasons than note-taking speed and looking more educated.

    In the past I tried using lap-top computers to take notes during important meetings and spent many meetings dealing with locked-up computers, struggling with formatting issues, or more embarrassingly looking down to notice I’d misplaced my fingers and had spent valuable time typing gibberish. Being able to take rapid notes using cursive writing was much more effective.

    Also, I think sending hand written notes in cursive looks far-more professional (plus makes you look more educated) than printed. Yes, I know there is the argument that most people send notes in E-mail format now days, but not all communications are necessary in E-mail format.

    As a teacher I have heard the argument that understanding and communicating in cursive helps promote better reading because the brain will more readily pick up words as a whole rather than constantly decoding them letter by letter. While I’m not sure about the veracity of this argument, I tend to believe it has some logic.

    I like the idea of insisting that all rough drafts be turned in in hand-written form to reduce plagarism.

  12. Something I believe needs to be addressed in conjunction with reading development is handwriting in schools. Children, who have just learned to read and print, are confronted in the third grade with a bewildering set of hieroglyphics, in the form of cursive writing, that has to be mastered. Now this is a difficult enough task for the 70% of kids who are reasonably proficient readers (by today’s standards) at the end of the second grade, but for the remaining 30% the cursive handwriting process serves only to compound their learning difficulties and enervate their spirits—and for what purpose?

    Handwriting skill (in an artistic sense) is an anachronism. It belongs certainly to the pre-computer days if, indeed, it ever belonged to any age. Why do we waste a year’s education trying to develop a skill that many of us never acquire in a lifetime’s practice? The measure of that skill, the real test of handwriting, is, of course, ensuring that it can be read—other than by the author. Communication has to take place. Sometimes there is the situation of even the author being unable to decipher his writing.

    Manuscript writing, or more commonly printing, is taught only in the first two grades. It closely follows the printing seen in text books and provides a necessary feedback for reinforcing word formation—the letter make-up of words—so valuable, in conjunction with phonics, for orthography.

    Printing (writing) is a separate and distinct skill from reading—different processes are involved—but it does complement the reading process. Equally, the transition from printing to handwriting requires a further set of skills, particularly for the complex cursive style advocated by Alberta Education (Emma E. Plattor – The Teaching of Handwriting in Elementary Schools). However, by contrast, cursive handwriting only minimally complements reading development since there is little comparison between the print seen in books and that used in the cursive hand. How many parents and teachers have heard beginning readers say they now want to learn to read grown-up writing. Children themselves distinguish between the ability to read handwriting and the ability to read text in books. Months…years are wasted by dogmatically instructing children in this cursive hand, and impressing upon them the need for legibility; it seems the difficulties of learning the cursive hand frequently cause an illegible writing style. Indeed, it is quite possible, many children who are unable to spell because whole word methodology doesn’t pay attention to individual letters, use illegibility in their writing styles as a mask for this inability. It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between poor spellers, poor (illegible) writers, and the method of reading instruction.

    What is it, then, that induces Alberta Education to continue promoting the need to switch from a perfectly acceptable writing style (manuscript) to one which is source of frustration for the writer and the reader (cursive)? It is worth examining some of the probable fallacies that persist to keep cursive handwriting in the Elementary Language Arts Curriculum Guide:

    1.IT’S FASTER

    No, it isn’t. Anything we practise for many years naturally becomes faster. This is not to say that practice always makes perfect. Practice also makes permanent. Slow illegible cursive writing becomes fast illegible cursive writing. Research shows that printing is as fast as cursive writing; there is economy of movement—no retracing. And, as regards legibility, there is no contest. Why else does every form we fill out say: Please Print. Imagine the speed, to say nothing of the legibility, if we constantly practised printing for twelve years instead of just the first two.

    2.YOU CAN’T PRINT YOUR SIGNATURE

    Yes, you can. In fact, handwriting experts say a printed signature is more difficult to forge than a handwritten one.

    3.IT’S MORE ADULT

    Really? This sounds like a mature rationale: Let’s learn handwriting because it’s more grown-up.

    4.CURSIVE WRITING ENABLES A UNIQUENESS OF STYLE TO BE DEVELOPED

    Certainly everyone adds flourishes and embellishments – often the source of illegibility—to his writing style to establish its uniqueness (contrary to what is recommended in the curriculum guide) and this would occur—though to a far lesser extent—with manuscript. But the essential point is that the separation of the letters in printing would ensure legibility is retained. Printing styles would vary no more than prints fonts vary in word processors. e.g. Monaco, Times, Helvetica…

    5.THE CONTINUOUS FLOW OF HANDWRITING ALLOWS MORE PEN CONTROL FOR THOSE STUDENTS WITH POOR FINE MOTOR COORDINATION

    I doubt this is the case. Raising the pen momentarily allows for a re-positioning and re-alignment of the next letter in a sequence—a corrective feedback process. Once tracking is skewed with handwriting, the misalignment continues to be accentuated.

    By the end of second grade, many children have not acquired the automaticity in decoding that frees the cognitive processes to attend to meaning. Expecting these children to learn a new and complex skill as cursive writing defers the stage at which automaticity occurs. For all children, the natural flow of thought processes during composition or essay writing is interrupted and impeded by the need to conform and attend to this new writing style. If there was some redeeming feature, some intrinsic worth to cursive writing, I would have no argument—but such worth is patently absent. My main argument, though, is not with the cursive hand itself, it is with the timing of its introduction and its valueless contribution to the learning development of children. The time would be better spent on improving existing reading and writing ability or on learning a value-added skill.

    If an alternative developmental skill to learning cursive writing is sought, children could be taught—as some are now—something that will definitely benefit them in the future: keyboard skills. Cursive writing, if it is taught at all, could be left till later grades and treated as an optional course.

    When children have discovered the key to the door of knowledge, the ability to read and write, the last thing they need is to be thwarted in their passage through the door by an unnecessary cipher lock in the form of cursive writing.

    References:

    *Alberta Elementary Language Arts Curriculum Guide. 1978, revised 1982.
    *Moore, Sharon Arthur. The Devil’s Advocate: Curse You, Cursive Writing

  13. I think we need to dispel with the myth that cursive writing is faster than printing. Which ever method a person uses most often will become the faster one for them. Additionally, with cursive the faster you write with it, the harder it is to read what was written (in my opinion). So many of my students had great penmanship until they learned cursive. Now their handwriting is horrible.

  14. I learned cursive in second and third grade. When I started to learn it was very hard. But my mom helped me and that, learning cursive I mean, is one of the best things I have learned. In sixth grade the teachers were complianing of how terrible their students handwritting was. They then put us in a cursive handwritting class. I was the only one in the whole class who could really write in cursive. Now I use the cursive I learned to use it on writting assignments because it is easier to write longer in cursive and way more ledgible. Yes using the computer is easier to use, but fo rone not everyone HAS a computer. Second WHY does everthing HAVE to revole around the computer. It doesn’t. And another thing is people CHOOSE to have bad handwritting and terrible cursive if they want to they can learn and practice. It can be good and they can revive the art of cursive. Yes I consider cursive an art. Thank you for bringing this argument up.

  15. Speaking as a dysgraphic, having undergone physical therapy cursive *still* makes my hand hurt after writing a single paragraph. In print I can write for four or five pages. I can type indefinitely.

    Trying to learn cursive was quite literally an exercise in enduring torture.

  16. Handwriting matters … But does cursive matter?

    Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citation on request.)

    Reading cursive still matters — this takes just 30 to 60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to a five- or six-year-old if the child knows how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no justification for writing it.

    Remember, too: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (Don’t take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone — CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    Director, the World Handwriting Contest
    Co-Designer, BETTER LETTERS handwriting trainer app for iPhone/iPad
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

  17. Interesting.
    Your entire argument hinges on something entered in Wikipedia (the answer to everything).
    No true investigation of how a child’s brains develop or benefit from such activities.
    Simplistic way of looking at a complicate issues.
    But I guess it makes it easier to dismiss things we truly don’t like.
    Yes computers are tools and like any tools they should be properly understood and used appropriately.
    But hey wait a few more years and we won’t need to walk.

  18. I think you should take pride in your work. Honestly, my print looks like chicken scratch. My cursive on the other hand: amazing. And type? That’s a pittyful excuse for not learning it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t lug around a computer all day. Besides, I think you should let your student choose, not tell them which one because it suits your fancy.

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