Kids aren’t learning cursive anymore, reports the Associated Press. Katie Van Sluys, a professor at De Paul University and president of Whole Language Umbrella, says that students have difficulty seeing the relevance of handwriting. They use computers at home, so schools should reflect this. “We need to make sure they’ll be ready for what’s going to happen in 2020 or 2030,” she says. “They’re writing, they’re composing with these tools at home, and to have school look so different from that set of experiences is not the best idea.”
Not all agree. Sharon Spencer, a teacher at Mountaineer Montessori in Charleston, teaches her students cursive starting in first grade. She believes that it helps with muscle control and coordination, and argues that one can’t always count on having a computer at hand. “In the age of computers,” she says, “I just tell the children, what if we are on an island and don’t have electricity? One of the ways we communicate is through writing.”
The most ambiguous point comes from Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who, according to the article, “cites multiple studies showing that sloppy handwriting routinely leads to lower grades, even in papers with the same wording as those written in a neater hand”:
Graham argues that fears over the decline of handwriting in general and cursive in particular are distractions from the goal of improving students’ overall writing skills. The important thing is to have students proficient enough to focus on their ideas and the composition of their writing rather than how they form the letters.
Yes, but does that mean students should or shouldn’t learn cursive? How will students become proficient writers if they can’t form letters (or type) quickly?
There are at least two questions here. First, are there compelling reasons to continue to teach cursive handwriting? Second, how can we ensure that students become proficient in forming letters, whether in handwriting or through typing?
For the first, I can only speculate. I would favor keeping some kind of handwriting instruction in the schools, because it has a different quality from typing, especially typing on a computer keyboard. There is greater commitment when you write on paper, and at the same time more of a “draft” sense at the outset. On the computer, you can simply delete what you don’t like, and you can turn a draft into a final version without showing any words crossed out or changed. The revision is often hidden (unless you use Track Changes or version control). Why does this matter? For one thing, those crossed-out words often trigger good ideas; they also can help us see what is going astray.
On the other hand, the keyboard is an “equalizer” for those who struggle with handwriting. And there are situations where it is simply handy to delete a mistake instead of writing the whole thing over again.
Also (in favor of handwriting), unless students use laptops in every class from the early grades up, they will still need to do much of their work in handwriting. There will still be many situations that call for written statments, essays, letters, and more. There will still be diaries. For that reason alone, they should learn to write by hand. Why cursive? Once learned, it can be more fluid than print. But I would settle for print or cursive, as long as students can write fluently. Others, such as Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld, point out the benefits of cursive over print and hybrid handwriting styles.
The second question is easier to answer. Schools should teach typing and handwriting. Students may find down the road that they type 90 percent of the time, but at least they will have the choice. It should be part of the curriculum in the early grades, and there should be workshops in the later grades for those who did not learn it. I have had many middle-school students who typed with their forefingers only (looking for each letter as they went along). It took much effort for them even to do a Google search. Some children are quite agile when texting with their thumbs, but they depend on the shortness and abbreviations of the text message. If we turn into a “texting” culture we will limit what is actually said and will encourage what American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron calls a “sloppy or laissez-faire” attitude toward the mechanics of writing.
The times may be a-changing, but the need for writing remains. Students should learn the mechanics so that mechanics won’t get in their way.