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The Great Cursive Writing Debate: Should public schools teach cursive writing?

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  1. Kate Gladstone on September 19, 2021 at 5:27 pm

    Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility.

            Contrary to myth, reversals in cursive are common — a frequent cursive reversal in my caseload, among dyslexics and others, is “J/f.”
             Interestingly enough, the first-ever published research study on dyslexia — back in 1896 — was a case history of a cursive writer in a cursive-only handwriting curriculum. Writing in cursive, he misspelled his first name (“Percy”) as “Precy”: a classic dyslexic reversal, in cursive, by a writer trained in cursive-only handwriting from Day One of school. This information is annoying to the frequent proponents of the belief that “cursive cures/prevents dyslexia,” so there is no reason to spare them such annoyance, because there is every reason to confront them with the facts that they cannot explain away.
     
    
    — According to comparative studies of handwriting speed and legibility in different forms of writing, the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive — although they are not absolute print-writers either. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all: joining only the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving the rest unjoined, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.
    Reading cursive still matters — but reading cursive is much easier and quicker to master than writing the same way too. Reading cursive, simply reading it, can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds (including those with dyslexia) once they read ordinary print.

    We don’t require our children to learn to make their own pencils (or build their own printing presses) before we teach them how to read and write. Why require them to write cursive before we teach them how to read it? Why not simply teach children to read cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, such as a form of handwriting that is actually typical of effective handwriters?

    Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37% wrote in cursive; another 8% printed. The majority — 55% — wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.
    
    When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why glorify it?
    Believe it or not, some of the adults who themselves write in an occasionally joined but otherwise print-like handwriting tell me that they are teachers who still insist that their students must write in cursive, and/or who still teach their students that all adults habitually and normally write in cursive and always will. (Given the facts on our handwriting today, this is a little like teaching kids that our current president is Richard Nixon.)
    What, I wonder, are the educational and psychological effects of teaching, or trying to teach, something that the students can probably see for themselves is no longer a fact?
    Cursive’s cheerleaders (with whom I’ve had some stormy debates) sometimes allege that cursive has benefits which justify absolutely anything said or done to promote that form of handwriting. The cheerleaders for cursive repeatedly state (sometimes in sworn testimony before school boards and state legislatures) that cursive cures dyslexia or prevents it, that it makes you pleasant and graceful and intelligent, that it adds brain cells, that it instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or that it confers numerous other blessings which are no more prevalent among cursive users than among the rest of the human race. Some claim research support — citing studies that invariably prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.
    So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident as soon as others examined the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim provides no source,
    or

    /2/ if a source is cited, and anyone checks it out, the source turns out to have been misquoted or incorrectly paraphrased by the person citing it, 
    
    or
    /3/ the claimant correctly quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

    By now, you’re probably wondering: “What about cursive and signatures? Will we still have legally valid signatures if we stop signing our names in cursive?” Brace yourself: in law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
     Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the 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 at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.
    All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual — just as all handwriting involves fine motor skills. That is why any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.
    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

  2. Jonathan on September 19, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    Your question is one that a lot of people ask, but it misses the point. “Cursive” for some means fancy looped lettering, for others it is synonymous with any kind of handwriting. But “cursive” is in fact a mode of writing, not a style — a mode that is relatively flowing where many letters are connect with ligatures. Cursive exists in many forms, including the ancient Egyptian Demotic script that was written 2,000 years ago. Clearly, schools should not be teaching that. But when we are talking about the Latin alphabet and available handwriting methods in the US, there are two main flavors: the continuous looped cursive styles such as Zaner-Bloser, Handwriting Without Tears and D’Nealian; and the “joined-print” italic style (which predates by several hundred years the aforementioned looped styles) in the Barchowsky and Getty-Dubay methods. The real questions you should be asking has two parts: “Should schools teach handwriting using best practices?” The answer is “yes”. Just as there is a science of reading, there is a science of handwriting, and they are linked. Then, “If schools teach handwriting, which style should they teach?”

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