Why teach cursive handwriting? A response

Post ImageBack in April I wondered why we still teach cursive handwriting in elementary school. The post generated lots of discussion at the time, and it definitely gave me much to think about. On Friday, I started thinking about it again after receiving a response via email from a reader known only as "The Bluebell Wood." It’s obvious a lot of thought was put into it, so I asked for permission to publish the response and received it. Here it is:

Being able to write a legible and pleasant longhand is an essential part of rational life. “Word Processing” (an abominable phrase) is no substitute. Marshall McLuhan wrote The Medium is the Message and there is a lot of truth in that. The flow of a pen in the hand over paper while composing sentences is a completely different experience from keyboarding and looking at a screen; physically, and in the tools used, and in the mind as well. There is an effect on the content of what is written; in the same way that seasoned craftsmen in the guilds of Renaissance Italy would say, “It is the trade entering his body” when an apprentice bruised his thumb or some such hurt while learning the use of his tools. Writing with ink on paper is an act by which our peerless English language enters us – through hand, eye, posture, and senses, into our thoughts, affecting the sentence structure and choice of words. Forming well-made letters with the hand while forming thoughts in the mind is not the same as tapping little plastic squares while mechanical fonts appear on a screen and the cursor blinks like a tap that won’t stop dripping.

The practice of handwriting also infuses many desirable character qualities. Regard for the reader in the striving for maximum legibility is foremost; the training and development of the aesthetic sense in the letters, spacing, and overall texture; discrimination in avoiding poor proportions; rectitude in avoiding excessive flourishes; in general the application of what Edward Johnston called “sweet reason” in his classic Writing, Illuminating & Lettering of 1906.

This applies to the slant as well, which ideally is not more than about ten degrees from the vertical.

The clarity and precision needed for good legibility schools us in our thoughts and the sentences which incarnate them.

Why would anyone use cursive handwriting in this digital age? The answers are many: pleasure; rational and aesthetic maturity; participation in a historical stream reaching far, to the very dawn of man; its warmth in personal letters; to improve our thinking; and, as one of your own respondents has commented, “Just because everything can be done by computer doesn’t mean that it should be.” (shermie, May 2/07) (Emphasis added). It is premature to call this a digital “age”; it is barely three decades old, and the common use of fonts and p.c.s has been with us for less than one on hundredths of the ages in which cursive writing has been used, in various alphabets and languages.

The very typeset from which the font in which the question was posed is founded on the Humanist Bookhand and its Italic derivatives, which has been in continuous use for six hundred years, and is still vigorous. It is not possible to participate in the “Great Conversation” without learning cursive handwriting and using it well. In postulating that it no longer be taught, one finds oneself in the position of the man sawing off the limb of the great oak on which he himself resides. It is of the utmost importance to retain this skill. We owe it to children and youth to pass on this priceless heritage.

IT IS NOT OURS TO WITHOLD.

A cursive script was used 3,500 years ago in Egypt, where the priests had a hieratic script with the same relationship to hieroglyphics as our longhand has to printing. Cursive Hebrew dates back to Moses (c. 1400 B.C.) and there are also examples from the times of Jeremiah and Jeroboam II (c. 760 – 570 B.C.).

The pleasure of handwriting has always been with us and it is not going to go away. It represents the distillation of human effort to record images of the mind and heart.

It’s a very good response, I think. The font-face I use on this blog is Lucida Sans Unicode, in case anyone was wondering.

25 thoughts on “Why teach cursive handwriting? A response

  1. Nice philosophy there, but I think the reasons are much more practical. Sometimes it’s necessary to take quick notes, or compose something written, and all you have handy is paper and a pen or pencil, no electronic device. Cursive writing is faster than printing once you know it. (Maybe shorthand would be better for taking notes, but that’s another argument.)

    I find practical uses for being able to handwrite (not print) quickly all the time, and I’m a pretty darned technie guy. And my nine-year-old daughter, who is just starting handwriting and is teaching her sister too, loves doing it as well. Pleasure is a reason in itself.

    Fun and useful. Why NOT learn it?

  2. The bulk of that was about ‘art appreciation’ (which isn’t a necessity but rather something to be understood at a minimum) and didn’t really cover matters of function or efficiency, except for practising patience and discipline perhaps.

    Being able to read handwriting (centuries old perhaps) is seperate from being able to write it, i.e. the writing is not required to be able to comprehend history.

    Note that cursive writing in North America is not the same as the nearest equivalent of "joined up writing" in the UK. Also, forcing people to write each cursive letters in an exact way (while good for visual compatibility) actually goes against individual artistic impression, i.e. Cursive writing should be part of art/history class, not English class.

    In summary, I felt it was as concise as cursive hand-writing is efficient. The message of art appreciation is a seperate point.

  3. If (and only if) the mode of writing influences the thought-process that creates the writing’s content, then choice of handwriting style should influence what, as well as how, one writes and thinks. If so, then writers who learned conventional USA cursive (100% joined, with most letters much different from their printed or Humanist or Italic counterparts) would actually think in a different way from writers trained in the Italic style (which about 7% of USA schoolkids, and about 1/3 of USA homeschoolers, now learn). Have we any evidence of that?
    Regarding efficiency of handwriting: a 1998 study in the JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH finds that the fastest and most legible handwriting comes from writers who ignore certain rules of conventional cursive styles: those writers who join some, but NOT all letters (making the easiest joins and forgoing the rest) and who tend towards print-like forms for letters whose printed and cursive forms "disagree"("The relationship between handwriting style and speed and legibility" in the May/June 1998 JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH). For more on this phenomenon, see the "writing rebels" page on the Handwriting Repair web-site at http://www.learn.to/handwrite

  4. This is not a comment but rather a request for information on the “cursive vs. print” issue being faced in elementary and middle schools today. Should teachers require students to write in cursive once they learn it, or allow them to choose between the two? What are some documented reasons why we teach print to cursive?

  5. Students who use cursive have higher SAT results.

    Dyslexics actually benefit from cursive as it flows . They do not have to stop, lift hand (for next letter) as in printing. Stopping can throw a dyslexic off track.

  6. Why run when one can walk quickly? Because the answer is obvious, it is a more efficient way to move, as is cursive when using a pen.

    However, since cursive handwriting has been used in numerous historical documents, those will become illegible to print writers of the future. Ahh, yes think of twenty years from now when ween ask a celebrity for an autograph they will simply “print” their name.

  7. As a dyslexic who became a handwriting specialist (and who has helped many fellow dyslexics), I must disagree with the claim that cursive works well for most of us! Re: “Students who use cursive have higher SAT results” — according to the researchers who actually did that study (I’ve asked them about it), the tiny difference amounted to a small fraction of one point on that exam which consists of several thousand points: in other words, statistically insignificant (about like the difference that somebody might find between the exam scores of students who wore black shoes vs. brown shoes to the examination).

  8. I must say I have a child in grade 8 and one in grade 6 in Peel board and they no longer teach cursive. My grade eight daughter has many classmates who cannot read cursive.

  9. Isn’t it ironic that “The Bluebell Wood” neatly typed their well-thought out response into a computer to get their point across? Let’s have our school kids worry more about the content of what goes into their arguments than whether they have loopy o’s or not.

  10. I can appreciate teaching our children how to read cursive as I would like them to be able to read the Constitution of the United States. That being said I am of the opinion that teaching them to write cursive and grading them on the quality of their cursive writing is going to prove a big waste of time. My two oldest children are ending their 1st & 3rd grade years. I fear that in another 10 years there will be very little writing done by anyone and we will have wasted valuable classroom time on having pretty handwriting. And that pretty handwriting doesn’t last long into adulthood for most of us so what was the point of it all anyway?

  11. I teach 4th grade and make them use cursive exclusively. My reasoning is more practical. Many children come to me with atrocious print skills which have never been fully addressed in prior grades, so it’s easier for me to start over and make them do cursive neatly. My other reason is for image. Being able to write nicely in cursive will always be regarded as a mark of intelligence. In a competitive world, it’s a simple way to distinguish oneself.

  12. I have read with interest the reasons that many would not want their children to spend precious schooltime practicing cursive handwriting, and have had many discussions with instructors and parents alike. I still believe firmly that we ought to educate teachers on the merits of cursive handwriting which outweigh the detractors. Firstly, I would venture that it stimulates a part of the brain when one is creating the letters that would not be used otherwise, that said, there are many abnormal psychological traits than can easily be detected in analyzing handwriting–personality traits aside, I can’t imagine my kids not being able to read historical documents because they are ignorant of cursive handwriting.

  13. This is so much bloviating. NOBODY USES CURSIVE ANYMORE. I spent several years in elementary school learning cursive and now I can’t write anything but my name in the script, even though I’m a professional author. Why? Atrophy. There is no practical application for the skill.

    Writing by hand in standard letters is just as fast as writing in cursive, if its what you are used to. It is also easier for others to read.

    I’d rather that time being used in my kids’ classrooms to learn science and geography and art and other useful things. Yes, its nice that you enjoy this fantasy about having some connection to the hieratic script used thousands of years ago. ITS A FANTASY. There is no direct relationship between the two scripts. And some interesting story behind the orgins of fonts is not an especially compelling rebuttal to the fact that nobody actually uses cursive anymore. All of these kids will have completely forgotten how to write in it by the time they reach 12th grade. It is a complete waste of time.

  14. Great Post!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Thank your for bringing some common sense.
    My children did not know how to write in cursive. We work with them everyday, but took that for granted that school would prepare them… WRONG!!!! I had to look for info online, since their handwriting/penmanship was horrible. Right now their working on a program called http://www.fonts4teachers.com and their cursive skills are taking off.

  15. My daughter is 3 and they have just started to teach her this form of writing in my opion I think it total waste of time until the children know the letters and and can recognise them some of the letters are not recognisable even to me !!!!!!

  16. As a writer and author and a 66 year old who learned the Palmer method of cursive writing – and – a person who has used all three, typewriter, cursive and word processing to do my authoring, I feel that the quoted passage doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me.  Actually, unburdened by the act of forming the letters and dealing with errors which are inevitable and somewhat fixable with typewriters and not fixable nicely at all, with cursive, and unburdened by the slow laborious task of cursive, I found myself totally liberated by word processing and do most everything IN word processing today!  When I was confined to cursive writing, I authored much less just because of the mere slowness and laborious task of putting it in cursive.  My husband, also 66 years old, not an author (but who also does a lot more authoring using the word processor than he ever did in cursive) ceased using cursive writing after High School preferring to use printing when he wrote letters etc since he was not familiar with typewriters.  My mother, a foreseeing woman in many ways, made me take typing in junior High School, a decision which I have always thanked her for, because I am, today, a touch typist and because as soon as I had access to a typewriter, I always preferred that to using cursive!  Our son who now is 42 but was one of the first in his class to own a computer, introduced me to word processing. Not that I didn’t go into it kicking and screaming at the age of 39 (TRS 80 color computer) but when I saw I could now produce a perfect page of writing, I was intrigued and did the learning curve.  My writing is unfettered now that PRODUCING the script is pretty automatic.  Stephen King is a writer who wrote the early books with a typewriter and the later books using a word processor.  And you can see the difference!  The later books are much better written, much less verbose than the earlier ones.  With a typewriter, a person just isn’t going to be able to revise and slim down their writing like they can with a word processor!  If cursive is advocated as an art form, then why not go all the way and do calligraphy (which I also do)?

  17. It is a major shame that college students cannot PRINT their name – much less write it. How will students and future adults use technology to sign their names to checks or legal documents without the risk of someone hacking in on their information. SHAME on the school systems who do not think handwriting is important. What happen to reading, writing, and arithmetic?

  18. 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

  19. That’s so interesting.  My mother used to use this strange, part cursive, part print writing which was always beautiful, fast and legible.  I, however, do *not* use cursive I was taught in school and prefer to print everything.  I can write very fast but it’s not pretty.  It’s somewhat legible.  I am homeschooling my two children.  My son will be six soon.  My husband argues I should teach him cursive yet he prints everything too.  Once I can get him to print well, I am unsure whether I will teach him cursive or shorthand (which I wish my school had offered), but most importantly he will learn how to type…

  20. Huh?  Really?  You should’ve tried to read the writing of the attorney I used to work for!  And don’t get me started on the various doctors and veterinarians I’ve dealt with.

  21. Atrophy is a valid point as it is a skill that is used less than in the past and our generations handwriting has suffered. It is also part of the reason to teach cursive. There is significantly more brain activity during the task of cursive vs keyboarding. As with learning a new language or a musical instrument it is easier to develop young minds that have more nueral connections than an adults mind. Cursive is also more personal, more creative while engaging more of the brain.
    Many 4 year olds today can work wonders with an iPad or a mouse but can’t build a block tower more than 3 blocks high. Lets focus on maximizing the potential of the human brain instead of relying on technology. OUr next generation of creative minds and artists depends on it!

    I have included a link to an article regarding brain development for those interested. http://mimlearning.com/news/2012/02/12/cutting-cursive-the-real-cost 

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