The Curse of Cursive

by F.

Like many people, I was taught cursive writing at a young age. It was never my best subject. This may have been because I liked to draw, too, and I thought of writing as a kind of drawing exercise: I was much more interesting in making the writing look interesting (“Loops!”) than using it to communicate. I preferred to print when I needed to write something. Later, when I learned architectural printing—which is, to my eye, quite beautiful as well as readable—my cursive skills atrophied further.

At some point, my teachers gave up trying to teach me “proper” cursive and I continued to write sloppily, without much downside, especially after I learned to type. Typing was a revelation and after I learned how, I pretty much gave up using a pen or pencil to express myself in words at all. What was the point? Typing was—and is—to me actually fun. You can write closer to the speed of thought. Or so if feels.

Many years later, for some reason I took up calligraphy. And that lead to my wanting to learn, finally, to write cursive properly. So at the age of 39 I decided to learn how to write in cursive. I got some samples of handwriting from a home schooling website and practiced a little. I made sure I knew the correct way to form the letters. And when I had to write things down—a grocery list or a Post-It Note—I would use cursive. I became competent in about three weeks, which shows you how little skill is required. Given the ease with which I learned to write in cursive, I concluded I’d been quite stupid not to have just knuckled under as a child. I would have been spared much hassling by teachers.

As I started using cursive more and more, however, I noticed that cursive writing, even “good” cursive, is not particularly readable. I would look at my writing, and even though it looked like the “model” script I was trying to emulate, find it harder to read than either printing or typing.

Cursive trades readability for writing speed, like shorthand, though the latter trades off a lot of readability for speed—so much, in fact, that untrained humans can’t read shorthand at all. I have played around with shorthand over the years and have never found the benefits to outweigh the costs. It takes more than a rainy Sunday afternoon to learn. And I just don’t need to write with a pen that fast. (And anyway, I can write pretty fast with a pen, even though the script looks nothing like cursive.)

This lack of readability is one of the things that has always bugged me about cursive. My mom’s cursive handwriting is indecipherable to me. It’s very nice—uniform and loopy and in a way elegant. But I can’t read it. I wondered whether my inability to read her writing was me or her. Did other folks born around the same time (the 1920s) have a similar style? I went through a bunch of old letters my mom had in a trunk and discovered that much of the writing in this admittedly biased sample was, in fact, far less readable than hers.

Cursive, I have concluded, is a curse and we can thank the keyboard for delivering to it the coup de grace. The Washington Post has this epitaph:

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.

And those college hopefuls are just the first edge of a wave of U.S. students who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades, frequently 10 minutes a day or less. As a result, more and more students struggle to read and write cursive.

Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say.

Of course, there are those who see some benefit from the bizarre cursive ritual:

…academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it’s important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades….

The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better — a lifelong benefit. Children who don’t learn correct technique find it harder to write by hand, so they avoid it. Schools that do teach handwriting often stop after third grade — right after kids learn cursive. By the time computers are more widely used in classrooms for writing, perhaps in fourth or fifth grade, many children already have decided they don’t like to write.

In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George’s County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills

Concision is a good thing, as is the ability to express “complex thoughts.” But in an era of IM and SMS, do we really need more technologies that make us get to the point? And is cursive the best way to get kids to express their complex thoughts? My hunch is that there are better ways.

The entire Post article is here, by the way.

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