An Educated Rant re: The Future of Cursive in America

"Art d'Ecrire", page from Diderot's Enyclopedia, 1751-1772. hand colored engraving

Lea Wait, here, and confessing. My handwriting is neither elegant nor beautiful, nor, according to many who’ve attempted to read it over the years, easy to decipher.  (Future biographers, beware!) One of my grandchildren once watched me taking notes for a book and proceeded to show me that she, too, could “scribble.” She was using a crayon…

So perhaps I am not the best candidate to climb on this particular podium. But, since I will also confess to being quite stubborn when I’m convinced about the truth of some matter, I’m going to anyway.

I believe every student in school today should not only learn to print words, but also to write them in classic, cursive script.

If you haven’t had any close contact with students in grades 3-5 recently, perhaps you’re unaware that there is an increasing generation of American young people who cannot read or write in cursive. While schools will say that they “teach cursive,” when questioned teachers will admit they do so for perhaps 15 minutes “when we can fit it in the schedule.”  (Some will openly admit they “just don’t have time anymore” and many don’t attempt to teach it at all.)

My experience, as an author who’s spoken at schools in 11 states over the past few years, and who signs books (in cursive) for young people throughout the country, is that very, very few children today are learning to write anything but perhaps their own names in cursive. Even fewer are learning to decode the mysteries of other people’s handwriting.

And this distresses me.

Not because I have fond memories of being given my very first “real ink” pen in fourth grade and going home with ink-stained fingers (just like Jo in my favorite book, Little Women) until I ‘d mastered the fountain pen.  Although I do. Not because I remember being drilled in The Palmer Method and writing pages of correctly proportioned Js and Ts and Ws. Not (really!) because I’m an old fuddy-duddy who believes the old methods are better. Although, in this case, I do.

It distresses me because, contrary to what many young people think today, keyboarding (not even typing – they don’t learn that either) can never replace a working knowledge of script.

Yes, I believe it is faster for taking notes. And more beautiful for personal letters. (Today is Valentine’s Day. Is an email from your beloved really as meaningful as a hand-written love letter or poem?) And more distinguished for a signature on a document. But, even more than that. Being able to communicate in cursive is the key to all that has gone before us. The original words and wisdom of everyone in Western culture from the parents and grandparents of students today to the philosophers and authors and scientists and historians and artists of centuries past are all written in cursive.

Because that was how they wrote.

Too often I’ve inscribed a book to a teenager and had that young person come back to me and ask, “What did you write?” At first I assumed they couldn’t read my handwriting. My handwriting was not the clearest. So I started writing very neatly. Painfully so, in my eyes. Still, I was asked to interpret – or I saw students asking their parents to read my words. The parents had no trouble doing so.

That was when I realized: the students couldn’t read script. To them, it was another language.

In another generation, will learning to read script be a lost skill, only studied by those who wish to do graduate work requiring primary research?

In Korea, in the 15th century, King Sejong realized that only male aristocrats who had the time to learn could read and write the complicated Chinese characters, Hanja, required to write Korean. As a result, most Koreans were illiterate.  The king, a very wise man far ahead of his time, called many scholars together and charged them to study both western and eastern languages, and design a new Korean language:  a written language that would be accessible to all.  It is the only time in history such a thing was done. And it was successful. Today Korea uses Hangul: an alphabet. All read and write it.

If a Korean scholar wishes to study the Korea of the past, he or she must learn the old language: Hanja. Few do.

Someday, will our primary sources be accessible only to those who learn to read that “other language:” cursive? Will such skill be a mark of an intellectual? An ability to write in cursive the mark of a high social class?

Yes, our children have many things to learn today. But surely, the art of writing is not something we should leave behind without even a discussion. Or it may be only a few years before our grandchildren will be unable to read the words of the original Declaration of Independence.

And that will be a sad day.

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5 Responses

  1. Lea, Thanks for writing this. I agree completely. It was a real shock to me at Christmas to give my nine year old niece a copy of one of the children’s books I wrote ages ago and to have her glance at the inscription, something personal I’d written just for her, and say “I don’t read cursive” and set it aside. Until then, I had no idea that what we used to call penmanship was no longer taught. Makes me feel really old and very sad.

  2. A lot of people, lately, have been making a lot of noise about the death of cursive handwriting. They don’t want cursive to die. Handwriting matters … But does cursive matter?

    Research shows that 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: Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HANDWRITING STYLE AND SPEED AND LEGIBILITY. 2001: on-line at http://www.sbac.edu/~werned/DATA/Brain%20research%20class/handwriting%20speed%20style%20legibility%20berninger.pdf )

    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.

    A few people still even enjoy asserting that cursive “helps brain development.” Those assertions that the cursive style somehow makes you smarter are never accompanied by details, because the research on handwriting and brain development has shown that the benefits of handwriting vs. typing apply to handwriting in _any_ style, not just to one particular style.
    In some recent instances, in fact, those who feel a strong investment in cursive have misquoted the research in handwriting generally as if it specified cursive, when it doesn’t. (It’s as if the owner of a Persian cat found some research showing that cats catch more mice than dogs, then told other cat-owners that this meant Persians catch more mice than other breeds.)

    What about signatures? Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, then 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 all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.

    The individuality of print-style (or other non-cursive style) writings is further shown by this: six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the writing on an unsigned assignment) which of her 25 or 30 students wrote it.

    There’s also this to consider: 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. (On this, I could quote legal sources — and lawyers — but that would take more room than a letter permits. So don’t take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)

    In short, there is neither common sense, nor fact, nor legal necessity, behind the idolatry of cursive. Remember that research about the fastest, most legible handwriters? Most people who write that way were never taught to do it. Like the rest of us, they’d probably been taught otherwise. They had to stumble on those useful habits themselves, by consciously or unconsciously discarding what didn’t work in the printing or cursive styles they’d been taught, and keeping the best components of what was left — which meant breaking some of the rules they had been taught. But why leave it to chance and breaking the rules? There are books and (in the texting age) software designed to teach those better habits from the get-go and save handwriting for the twenty-first century. (Which ones? A letter like this is not the place for product reviews — though I welcome reader inquiries.)

    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.com

  3. A most interesting blog, Lea, and a subject I heretofore hadn’t give much thought to –maybe because my handwriting is so abominable. I used to think that cursive meant ‘slanted to the right,’ but gather that a left slant, as I do, can still be called cursive…
    But I would never win your contest, Kate. Not with computers to write my letters and books for me–everything except my signature on a book. And though I try to autograph painstakingly, it still resembles a hen slowly scratching her way through the sand.

  4. Re Nancy’s post above: I’ve seen her handwriting, in ms revisions, and it’s no worse than most authors’ ;). So she, like most of us, still has to hand-write things for certain purposes. I have to hand-write editorial comments and changes, as all my editing is still done on hard copy. I used to like my handwriting, but it seems to be deteriorating as I get older. The right pen or pencil can make a difference.

  5. I’ve actually been very curios about the future of cursive writing. I’m in the in between generation that learned to read and write cursive, but grew up with computers (not everyone had them back then so cursive education was taken seriously) I remember that I started writing reports on the computer vs cursive in 4th grade as soon as they gave us the option to do so. It’s so much easier to do and you can edit you paper and spell check it too! We weren’t taught to type in school back then. I had a computer program that taught me to type.

    I can’t even remember the last time I’ve written anything in cursive. It would be a very painful endeavor if I did and highly illegible.

    I also can’t even think of a time in my adult life where I’ve needed to read anything written in cursive. Well, other than birthday and Christmas cards from my mom. Anything important that is written in cursive, the constitution, is reproduced so many times in type print so is that’s an irrelevant argument. Anyone interested in historical documents could take a class to read script.

    I see no value in learning cursive writing in school. People that are interested in it can use their school taught typing skill and google “learn to write in cursive” and learn it on their own. Instead of the opposite like I had to do. I type all of the time and use cursive for nothing other than my signature (and barely at that since it’s just a squiggle anyway)

    We can be just like the Korean, Chinese, and Japanese or any other culture that has an obsolete fancy script that only historians or other scholars learn and then the everyday script that the whole population can read/write.

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