When I was growing up, learning to write in cursive was a given. Everybody did it in third grade, some with more ease and success than others. But ideas of good educational practices change. Today’s Common Core Curriculum, a set of preferred course offerings for grades K-12 in public schools, has dropped cursive like a hot potato. And some teachers and parents are burning mad.
My first reaction was to side with those angry protestors. Of course everybody needs to be able to read cursive writing. Historical documents like the Declaration of Independence are written in cursive. How sad not to be able to read those. And what about personal correspondence (some people do still write letters) and signatures on important documents?
I heard once about a grandmother who wanted to write her memoirs for her descendants. For a long time, she debated about what medium to use for storage. She remembered the short life of floppy discs and feared CDs and even the Cloud would suffer the same fate. She didn’t want her great-great grandkids to have to drag out some antiquated piece of equipment (remember eight-track players?) to read the memoirs. Finally she decided to write them by hand. Everybody could easily read that.
I repeat, everybody could easily read that. Herein I think lies the key to the cursive debate. Reading cursive is important; writing it not so much.
Why can’t we teach students to read cursive writing without forcing them to produce those swirls and loops that give so many of them nightmares? My friend Polley Ott Maltese, who taught English at all levels for many years, told me some of her students spent hours practicing those stubborn cursive letters when they could have been involved in much more productive activity. If they can print, they can communicate. I’ve also read that some studies show that most adults don’t use purely cursive writing. They use a combination of printing and cursive. I know I do.
One of the arguments for teaching cursive writing is that it is faster and students will have to take timed writing tests throughout their educational career. Faster for whom? Some students fall back on printing because cursive is harder, and therefore slower, for them. I think the hybrid method that most adults use grows out of a need for speed, and incorporating printing fulfills that need.
Polley also told me that some students will write shorter papers because they fear the time and effort making a “polished” copy in cursive will take. As a writer, I am devastated by that possibility. What a student writes is more important that how he or she writes it. But if you want to dwell on the mechanics of writing, focus on grammar and spelling, not handwriting. Let’s teach students that proper writing is not the same as texting. The correct choice may be your or you’re, but it’s never ur. And I’ve been troubled for a long time that students no longer learn how a sentence is put together. If you don’t understand the relationship between a main clause and a subordinate clause, how can you express a complex idea?
Perhaps the strongest argument against teaching cursive writing is that most people will spend their lives typing their written documents on a keyboard. So wouldn’t it make more sense to teach typing skills? Sure, most kids teach themselves to hunt and peck, but that’s not the same as correct typing, and if speed is what you’re looking for, as some of the arguments for cursive contend, hunt and peck won’t get it. I’ve seen the results of poor typing skills among my peers, usually men who thought they’d never need to type because they’d always have a secretary. Well, welcome to the age of computers, where if you want to get information out, you have to be able to type some information in.
In the interest of history, I think we should continue to teach children to read cursive, and those who are interested can learn to write it. But it’s a waste of time and frustration to force all children to write it. I’ve read that teaching children to read cursive is not nearly as time consuming as teaching them to write it. Let’s use that time to teach more relevant skills like how to express a complex idea in writing.