Revisiting Cursive


cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by opensourceway

A few years ago, I wrote a post about cursive handwriting, and it brought out several different viewpoints on the topic.  The one thing that I have learned is that many people are VERY passionate about this topic and are willing to talk about it for hours on end.  Because of the article, I was asked to talk about my viewpoints on a very short segment on Canada AM this morning.  I was extremely nervous since it was my first time on TV, but the opportunity was great because it actually pushed me to revisit the topic and my thought process a few years later from my original post.

My basic argument on the show was that we do not necessarily need to get rid of cursive in schools (it is still in the Alberta curriculum) but that teachers have to be very cognizant of how they spend their time with students.  Time is always scarce, yet more things are coming our way.  Would I be comfortable that schools produced a student did not know cursive but could effectively communicate using a computer or mobile device? Probably. Would I be comfortable if a student knew cursive but had no idea how to communicate over a computer? Nope.  Would I prefer they could do both? Absolutely.

As I thought more about cursive, it lead me to really think more deeply about reading and writing, how we learn, and how we can learn.  I thought that it was interesting that many people adamant about cursive being taught in schools used Twitter to communicate in real time with the show, host, and myself.  Do we take for granted the opportunities that we have to learn from one another?  Do we give these same opportunities to our students?  Sometimes we talk about school being the same for our kids, but ultimately, I want it to be better for our students as I think that we all would.  That is why we have to take a hard look at what we teach, and more importantly, how we (everybody) can now learn.

So from my research, I think that I focused more on literacy, learning, and creativity, than cursive specifically.

Traditional literacy is the foundation of learning

When I use the term “traditional” literacy, I am talking about how many people think of literacy which would be basic reading and writing (and talking as well).  Basically if someone cannot read and write, they are going to have trouble in all other areas of school.  Many people have the notion that if students aren’t cursive writing, they are not writing at all as displayed in a comment I read in this blog making a case for cursive:

“Writing is important and the less we start teaching our kids the more illiterate and lazy we will become.”

Although the tone is a bit much, I do agree that writing is important, but not necessarily cursive.  If I can get a student to write more that is better, and as David Crystal states, kids are reading and writing more than ever, just maybe not with the same tools that we used as kids.  One teacher I talked to this morning said she did not want to “torture” her kids with cursive and if they hate it, I wonder if it is really necessary if there are other ways to encourage reading and writing?  I remember having to read novels over and over again when I did not enjoy them at all.  I would sneak off to the library and read Sports Illustrated whenever possible but never allowed to read that in class.  Was the teacher trying to instill a love of fiction, or promote reading and writing?  If I didn’t have access to sports magazines as a child, I am not sure that I would have developed the same love of reading.

What if instead of having a student write in a “traditional journal” with cursive, they wrote in a blog?  Instead of the student writing in their book once, and the teacher responding, you ask the student to write a post and respond to five others? Instead of writing once, you have them learning from each other and writing a minimum of six times (if they choose not to respond to the comments they receive on their blog).  I hated writing as a child because cursive was hard and was physically exhausting yet I love writing in my blog (over 500 posts in less than three years).

Kids can still be writing (more), maybe just not always using cursive.

Literacy is continuously changing

As a colleague pointed me to a thought by Paulo Freire, he shared that (paraphrased) literate means better able to read the ‘world’ rather than the ‘word’ and that we must spend a great deal of time on developing literacies. The National Council of Teachers of English states:

As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.

I think of my niece Raine being able to create videos at a young age, yet not ever hearing that she is doing anything of the sort in school.  Isn’t she missing out on a huge component of literacy right there?

It was also interesting that on the CTV program they were actively sharing information on their Twitter account and then talking about an astronaut who is currently tweeting from space (which I know many Parkland Schools are following with great interest.  What are we missing out if we are unable to read hashtags and not understand what a Twitter handle is?  It was also interesting to see a school use NFL Player tweets to help kids understand spelling and grammar.  Doesn’t this make learning more real as opposed to continuously writing about a “lazy brown fox”?

If literacy didn’t develop, we would still all be using hieroglyphics right?

We need to spend more time on creative pursuits

One argument that many “pro-cursive” people talk about in using cursive in schools are the fine motor skills that are developed, along with the connection between the left and right brain.  I always find this interesting since this was a discovery after we have been using cursive in schools for years, yet it is still a very relevant argument.

So when I asked on Twitter, are there other ideas that we can still develop fine motor skills and connect brain hemispheres, there were many different suggestions on how this could be done, mostly in an art setting (making bead bracelets, clay, etc.).  I believe that art is something we do not do enough of in schools and that it can actually promote creativity in our students.  As Daniel Pink discusses in his book, “A Whole New Mind” (here is a great summary of the book), the future will belong to the creators and artists (along with empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers) and that products will need to be “physically beautiful and emotionally compelling.”  Design is an important element in our future so we need to be spending more time in classes giving students the opportunity to be creative.

“My contention is that creativity is now as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” Sir Ken Robinson

I know that many organizations are looking for creativity in new hires, not neat cursive.  I think the big question is though, would writing cursive help to promote creativity?

Learning needs to be personalized

As I stated this morning, it is not about getting rid of cursive, but about what is right for each student.  It is not good enough to say “we love teaching cursive to our kids”; you have to be able to justify why it is important.  With that being said, if I had a student that would benefit from using cursive to promote their writing, help them identify letters, and promote fine motor skills, I would be okay with that.  It is not an “either/or”, but about using whatever it takes to promote continuous learning for our kids.  Just as I hated writing in cursive as a kid, some kids might hate writing in a blog.  I am okay with that.  What we need to do as educators is not assume a standard solution works in a personalized world, and really help to develop kids as learners.  Teachers should know their kids first, and help them develop their learning, not focus on the curriculum first and help fit the kid into that space.

Concluding Thoughts

Many will take this as an “anti-cursive” stance which it really isn’t.  Whatever helps a student become not only literate, but fluent is great.  The major difference in our world now is that teachers have to prepare kids with so many aspects of literacy that they are going to have to choose their time wisely in the classroom.  I see many new teachers still write their notes in a book and then transfer it to a computer.  Do they do that because it is a better practice or because they have been conditioned to do that due to a lack of access to technology from when they were in school.  With devices becoming a lot cheaper and more prevalent in schools, is the best practice writing something on a piece of paper and then rewriting it on a computer?  Learning does not necessarily happen when I recopy my own stuff to another platform, but when I connect my learning and it becomes meaningful.  In a system where time is scarce, teachers will have to make some decisions about what is nice and necessary, which is probably why cursive often comes up in discussion.

Finally, host Marci Len talked about how sad it would be if there were no more handwritten cards, as they are extremely personal.  I get that and I always wrote cards to my staff when I was a principal.  Part of it was because I thought it was a nice gesture, but part of it was people knew that I did not enjoy cursive writing (I love sharing how great I thought they were!) and I wanted to show them that I was willing to go out of my way to do something for them that I struggled with.  That being said, it is not the only option for a kind gesture in our world today.  My brother Alec had a “birthday card” created for him on his 40th birthday, and although I have never seen him brag about any card that he has received, he has shared the video with others several times.  How many kids can create a video like that? (below)

As in life, we often focus too much on what we have lost, and not necessarily what we have gained.  Instead of lamenting on what we may be losing from our past, I will continue to look at all of the opportunities that our kids will have for school and learning to be better for now and their future.

  • wmchamberlain

    I think cursive should be moved to the art room. It is, after all, a very artistic way of writing. Of course I also think that art, music, and PE should be daily classes too. Anyone want to have an 8 hour day at school like me?

    • George

      Start a hashtag!!! I like the idea of cursive in an art class. Physical activity is daily in Alberta (as it should be) but art and music are not. That being said, many are integrating it into curriculum.

      • wmchamberlain

        #8HourDay or #DailyHumanities ? :)

  • Vini Jelicic Edy

    Well said. I agree that time in our classrooms is scarce and needs to be used more wisely. I think cursive has some benefits for some students but shouldn’t be taught with copious amounts of mundane worksheets.

  • http://davidwees.com/discuss David Wees

    I’d like to see a project like http://www.planethunters.org/ set up with historical documents that were written in cursive available for translation by students.

    Being able to READ cursive allows for students to read historical documents and has a clear purpose – becoming a historian.

    Being able to WRITE in cursive is a bit pointless IMHO, provided students can print neatly. A neatly printed note requires hand-eye motor coordination and shows that personal touch that people appreciate. If we want students to develop better hand-eye coordination, then they should do more art, particularly fine-detail drawing.

    The purpose of cursive was to allow people to write more quickly and our technology now allows this to be done in other ways.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mari2mah Marie Maher

    I think cursive also symbolizes an individual’s personal style and uniqueness. No two people have the same, exact format/signature. It is also a fundamental skill of literacy.

  • Mag Front

    I agree with all points made; about rethinking how valuable class time is used, the ever changing definitions of literacy, availability of digital tools to develop creativity, etc.

    I also think some good points were made about cursive writing; how it “symbolizes an individual’s personal style and uniqueness” (Marie Maher) and how “being able to READ cursive allows for students to read historical documents” (David Wees).

    What’s important here; I think, is that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (is that how the idiom goes?). Although we probably shouldn’t devote as much time to teaching it as was the case in the past (when it was pretty much the only way to ‘write’), I think we should still do more than just be ‘okay with it’ if a student chooses to use cursive. I’d still like students to be exposed to it, so that they can decide if it is their thing.

    In my teaching career I have never spent an extensive amount of time teaching cursive, but I found that spending a few class periods on it really allowed some kids to shine. I also think that not focusing on the ‘perfect’ formation of the letters is important, allowing kids to express their personal style through cursive writing instead. One year I taught my grade 5/6 class calligraphy and to my surprise, the BOYS really enjoyed it and would practice when they were done with their other classwork. That’s why I like the idea of moving cursive writing into art class (@wmchamberlain) as it does seem to be a dying art form.

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  • http://rhonimcfarlane.wordpress.com Rhoni McFarlane

    I must admit, the compulsory teaching of cursive writing has always frustrated me. As a parent I have two children who have both been taught cursive as part of their curriculum. My eldest found it a breeze, her passions for art and drawing and the commitment she shows to presenting her work culminated in lovely cursive handwriting. She brought home 30 mins of handwriting practice each week until year 5 and completed it without a grumble. My youngest however battled with handwriting, frustrated with which letters should be linked, which not, how far the “t” goes up and so on. My son is a speedy typer, he can manipulate documents, he writes functions into spreadsheets that I have no idea of, he is a passionate reader, writes a blog in his own time and creates stories and comic strips using my iPad – he is highly literate. In the painstaking time spent pencil in hand, tongue out, he could easily have created or produced something, I believe, to be far more valuable.

    The fine motor skills argument has some place, as handwriting is great practice to improve fine motor. However, it is NOT the only way. Drawing, crafts, clay and dough is great, so too is construction (have you ever tried to build a Lego Star Wars Fighter – that’s more fine motor skills than I posses), or collecting ants for and ant farm both of which my son is amazing at.

    As a Special Education teacher I have seen many students struggle with hand written work. I have had students come to me refusing to write because their previous experience with handwriting has been agony. Does this mean they cannot produce writing, or express themselves in written form? Goodness NO! My students produce mountains of literature, they just compile it in different ways. iPods, iPads, netbooks, laptops and desktops have been integral to enabling them to produce meaningful and relevant work. I value the content of the work most important, not the way it is presented to me. You said, “If I can get a student to write more that is better” – I completely agree. If I have a student expending energies on which letter links in which way, he/she is sure not going to be expressing their ideas to their potential.

    I understand that the hand written letter is valuable to some. I have a box filled with letters and cards that I treasure. Is it because the writer has good penmanship? Definitely not. It is the message that has touched my heart, the message that I will keep forever. If it came to me via post, email, edmodo, facebook, my blog or face to face, it would not make a difference to me.

    Placing cursive in the hands of the creative arts is a wonderful idea. I actually remember my sister learning Calligraphy as an option in her senior Art lessons.

    Something I try to ask myself every time I look at learning for my students, is why am I asking them to do it this way? Is this useful, is it relevant, is there a better way? Working with students with Autism is very useful in this way. They regularly ask what’s the point? I had one of my ASD students hand write a piece of writing last year. It was a wonderful piece of work and I asked if she should type it up for her folio. She shook her head at me and asked “Why didn’t you just asked me to write it straight onto the computer in the first place?” Duh! She will now be writing straight onto a blog! Lesson learnt :)

  • Joe Davies

    Awesome… as long as they are reading and writing in some form there can be a tool useful fir skill development and assessment.

  • http://twitter.com/dsmithnorth Dianne Smith (@dsmithnorth)

    I still think of cursive today as being like calligraphy from the past. I am in my 50′s, have fairly good cursive writing, and never use it except for my signature. My hand can’t keep up to my stream of thought with cursive writing. I am always skipping a letter and then have to fix it. I can type faster and, best of all, I can edit my writing. Cursive writing is very hard to edit. My daughters are now in their 20′s and I don’t think they really ever have used cursive. They were taught it, but never liked, it even though they are both quite creative and artistic.

    I teach a little cursive writing, particularly if a student likes it. I have a very hard time forcing students to spend time with it, when they don’t like it or struggle with it.

    By the way, I also do calligraphy for special occasions.

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  • http://www.dailytechbytes.wordpress.com Debra

    There are so many good points made both in the post itself and the many responses. I actually tweeted out the question of cursive last week as I was thinking about it’s continued relevance.

    I love William Chamberlain’s idea of moving cursive to the art room. That is something I had not considered, yet it makes sense since cursive and calligraphy lend themselves to art.

    What this post makes me wonder is, are we still teaching cursive as a vestige of our past educational lives (the good old days), a way to keep part of the traditional classroom? Or are we teaching it because we always have and we haven’t questioned it’s current value?

  • http://chrissmith0226.wordpress.com C. Smith

    I live in Virginia and have a first grader and a third grader in public schools. Both are learning cursive. I’m both an early adopter (I’m a technology manager by profession) and a traditionalist (I still shoot film). I hope that cursive remains a part of the curriculum, and that the idea of hand written thank you notes isn’t completely consumed by social media and touch screen devices. But I fear this is a losing battle…

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  • http://www.coetail.com/tarawaudby Tara Waudby

    I completely agree – it isn’t about what is right for everyone, it’s about what is right for each one. And if we started differentiating – actually differentiating – we could do a lot more, but not necessarily with everyone. Take the journal example. I believe blogging should be one of the principal genres we teach in English, but so far, it’s never made it into any list of mandated genres that I know of. On the other hand, if one student preferred to journal in a traditional journal and another on a blog, wouldn’t that be okay?

    With regards to changing brains, even I, who grew up on cursive seldom choose to use it anymore. I have completely trained my brain to draft on a computer, and in fact, I prefer it. My “journal” is now more of an idea book, where I sketch out thoughts or notes before I write about them (sometimes – when I am not jotting notes on my phone or tablet). I have another friend who also writes, and she drafts longhand every time. We have had discussions about the benefits both, and at the end of the day, we are both as productive and both as able. So why do we have to wait until adulthood to make those choices of differentiation?

    I am currently writing about the use of technology with regards to augmentation versus substitution. If we are only doing old things in old ways with the only change being the technology we use, then it’s kind of pointless. We need to be looking at how and why we are doing things and then deciding what is best.

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  • http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com Kate Gladstone


    Handwriting matters — but dues cursive matter? The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

    Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?

    Adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

    Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    What about signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

    All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which student produced it.

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

    SOURCES:

    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    [AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com