by Kelley Lindberg
Last Friday, the Utah State Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend that handwriting and cursive should continue to be taught in our Utah public schools. That instruction has been required in the state up until now, but under the new Common Core curriculum, it is no longer required. (“Utah Education Leaders Move to Keep Cursive in Schools,” Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 2013.)
In the “why teach a dying art form” debate, I say “because to lose it will be a much deeper loss than is apparent on the surface.”
The debate generally centers on this idea: no one uses handwriting for much these days besides a signature on legal forms and maybe grocery lists. We all use technology to communicate now, instead. So what’s the point in teaching handwriting in general, and cursive specifically?
There are lots of practical reasons why teaching cursive could be eliminated:
- Few people write anything really long (like a manuscript, say) by hand anymore. Those of us who do are mostly older generation, and we won’t be around much longer. Keyboarding, especially for the younger generation, is much faster.
- For short writing tasks, like quick notes or to-do lists, we can print just as fast as we can write in cursive.
- There are too many other newer, more relevant subjects that need to be taught in schools nowadays; there’s not time for an antiquated skill like cursive.
- Most people print anyway. According to Kitty Burns Florey in Script & Scribble (a surprisingly engaging book on they history and future of handwriting, and it’s a fast read, so check it out), in 2006, only 15% of students wrote their SAT essays in cursive; the other 85% printed theirs.
But I think there are some pretty important downsides that those arguments ignore. Here are some ideas I think we should strongly consider:
The handwriting form we call “printing” the )the non-cursive writing most of us seem to prefer) was invented less than a hundred years ago. (Marjorie Wise introduced it into New York City schools in the 1920s.) Surprised? Me, too. But that means that the entire history of humankind up until one century ago was written in something other than printing. For those of us primarily concerned/affected/influenced by the western world, we’re talking about centuries of history being recorded in cursive (some of it was printed on presses into book or pamphlet form, but the vast majority of persona, business, legal, and political communication was by hand).
Yes, that cursive has evolved over the years, and it can be difficult to read the really old stuff, but most of us can still pick up a copy of an old family diary and read at least most of it. If we suddenly stop teaching how to read cursive, all of that history soon will be shut off to all but a handful of “artisans” who specialize in cursive, in the same way that a handful of folks now specialize in deciphering cuneiform tablets or Mayan hieroglyphics.
Knowing the next generation of your family won’t be able to understand a word of your grandparents’ diaries, letters, or even their marriage license should give you pause. Now consider all the literature, genealogy, and local history that will be trapped forever inside codes that may never again be deciphered.
That scares me.
Another problem with losing handwriting instruction is that we’ve already reduced or eliminated most of the arts from public school education. In the push to accommodate shrinking budgets, an ever-increasing slate of new subjects, a strong emphasis on vocational readiness and a corresponding disdain for the liberal arts (and the well-rounded, ration, and deep-thinking abilities those liberal arts develop), art and music education is often the first casualty. This, despite an overwhelming amount of research showing that a basic foundation in art and music greatly enhance a student’s reasoning skills in math and language — the very skills we’re trying as a nation to strengthen.
Mastering handwriting, whether cursive or legible print, is similar to mastering other forms of art. It involves fine motor skills, patterning, angle, weight, intent, joining individual components into a larger whole, and control. Then you combine all those specific techniques in a personal way to express yourself. Sounds like drawing, painting, guitar playing, singing, dancing, or sculpting, doesn’t it? So maybe continuing to teach cursive not only preserves our access to the mountains of written history we still need, but it also exercises the artistic portion of our children’s minds that are rapidly becoming atrophied (without having the hire a new teacher).
In fact, plenty of evidence proves that when students study handwriting and learn to form their own letters, it focuses their attention and reinforces the concepts of how those letters become words that mean something. In other words, the act of writing makes reading make more sense, and reading comprehension scores improve in students who have studied handwriting.
Reading comprehension is essential for every other academic subject, every application that student will ever fill out, and his or her eventual career success. Period.
Perhaps the answer isn’t to eliminate cursive. Perhaps a better solution would be to teach it sooner. In many European countries, cursive is taught in kindergarten when the children are first learning their letters. A Spanish teacher I used to know couldn’t understand why we were waiting until third grade to teach it here. She said that seemed rather laborious (not to mention frustrating) to let children learn it one way, then change it three years later.
Another solution might be to look at the types of cursive we teach. There are, believe it or not, a wide range of cursive styles currently being taught. European cursive looks very different from American cursive, for example (European cursive is vertical, while American is slanted). The old Palmer method many of us learned may not be the best. (Q like a 2, really?) Script & Scribble has some really interesting examples of newer styles that might be more palatable, yet still leave our history accessible and our reading comprehension enhanced.
So before we abandon handwriting instruction, we need to understand what we’re really leaving behind. So thank you, Utah State Board of Education, for recognizing that it’s not a simple throw-away skill and recommending that we continue teaching handwriting to our next generation of thinkers.
What are your thoughts on this debate? Share a comment and let us know. It’s not going to be an easy decision.