The Mechanics of Writing

Cursive doesn’t mean screaming profanity while writing but when I was learning penmanship I would certainly have been tempted. Granted my entire repertoire of bad language at the time was learned from episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so it’s not like I would have had a huge selection to work with, but the point stands: I hated cursive when I was learning to write. Now being homeschooled I eventually got out of it – my mother just felt that my trying to learn the art was taking up too much time, both in that I wasn’t learning it in spite of the time we spent on it and that my frustration at my inability to master the skill was impeding my ability to focus on other schoolwork.

So when I learned that Common Core was abolishing the need to teach cursive handwriting I wasn’t terribly surprised. I know I wasn’t the only person who was very frustrated with it as a child and many people certainly can’t write in it as an adult. Imagine my surprise when I heard so many people crying out the abolishment of a “fundamental part of our culture.”

So I thought for funsies I would take a quick look at this more literal side of the art of writing and explain to all those cursive apologists why I think removing this part of penmanship from elementary education is a good idea. There are, as I see it, three questions we have to consider when looking at cursive handwriting and they are thus.

Is cursive handwriting necessary to the purpose of written communication?

I feel that it is not. Writing is for communicating ideas and the extreme variance in an individual’s handwriting is more pronounced in cursive than in block print. Jokes about a doctor’s handwriting show how incomprehensible a stranger’s handwriting can be. Since the purpose of written communication is to clearly convey a message I don’t think cursive handwriting is directly required to meet the function of handwriting and at times it is actually counterproductive. The one exception is when cursive is used in a signature – but more on that in a few paragraphs.

Is cursive handwriting educationally beneficial?

There are studies that indicate that learning to write by hand stimulates the brain in ways that other kinds of learning and communication do not. Well and good but articles like this one are just talking about writing by hand – the kind of writing doesn’t seem to be that important. They even talk about writing in Chinese or just writing out math problems to gain an understanding of concepts, the important thing is associating motion and symbols with ideas regardless of the kind of motions or symbols. Likewise, the benefits apply to people of all ages not just young people but more on that in a second.

There is a side to this that I haven’t heard discussed at all. Handwriting classes often come before other literacy skills and in my personal experience that was a bad thing. You see, I spent all that time learning to write by hand when I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing with all those shapes I was learning to make. My vocabulary was small, I hadn’t read any stories that gave me an appreciation for the written word – I was being expected to master a skill I could see no practical application for! With no understanding of the potential of the English Language teaching me handwriting was akin to handing someone the key to a treasure vault but the key weighed fifty pounds and no one told me what it did. I just couldn’t see the point. Worse, cursive demanded a degree of physical dexterity I did not possess and wouldn’t for a while.

For years I would loathe writing, not because I was bad at it but because I couldn’t perform the physical act of writing without associating it with the incredible frustration trying to master cursive writing had caused me. I actually wrote a couple of short stories before I turned ten – but I did it using a word processor, not pencil and paper. I am not convinced the benefits of learning cursive handwriting outweigh the drawbacks of causing students who lack the early manual dexterity to master cursive writing to associate the act of writing with frustration.

In an ideal world every student would be allowed to master these literacy tasks at their own rate but in the one size fits all world of nationally administered curriculum I think it’s better to remove an obstacle to learning to write and enjoying it than to leave part of the class frustrated with writing for very little educational gain.

Is cursive handwriting artistically important?

Yes. Very much so. You see, I don’t object to cursive handwriting – my problem is who it is taught to. We use cursive as a means of individual expression in the same way we might use tone of voice. Signatures are likewise an expression of our identity, something unique and personal. That’s good, but it’s not something we can reasonably expect from an elementary student – most of them are not at the point where they’re good enough at expressing themselves . Ideally understanding cursive would be something we expect of students come middle school or early high school. It could be taught as part of an introductory course on art, along with teaching on hieroglyphs, calligraphy¬†both Western and Eastern, and illuminated manuscripts.

Students could choose to learn to write cursive as part of the hands on side of the arts program or study other forms of art like sculpture or photography but reading cursive should probably be a mandatory part of the course, much like understanding the composition of a painting is also mandatory in arts courses. Since people of all ages benefit from handwriting there’s no harm done in waiting to teach cursive. Also, middle-high school is where personalities really begin to gel so it’s a good time to begin developing a signature – a mark that really identifies who you are.

I hardly think all this talk is going to end the hand wringing over handwriting, if for no other reason than the fact that my readership is so small. But I would like to say, just one more time, that I don’t have a problem with cursive penmanship – just the way it was traditionally taught. Cursive needs to be looked at as an art form and not a fundamental literacy skill.

Yes, I know many people learned it as such and did just fine but that doesn’t make the method ideal. In a world of top down education removing cursive from the curriculum entirely is probably the best solution we’re going to get until we get tired of the Department of Education and kick Congress out of our local schools. In the meantime, I don’t think cursive is going to die out.

You see, it’s a very beautiful way to write and beautiful things are taken up because they’re beautiful. With YouTube tutorials for everything under the sun people who want to master cursive need look no further than videos like this one and, like all art forms, their cursive will probably develop best if they work out what exactly their handwriting should look like on their own. The rest of us can block print our way through life and express our love of beauty through story, song or whatever other method best suits us. And when it comes to personal expression, isn’t modeling it the best way to teach anyways?

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2 responses to “The Mechanics of Writing

  1. Thanks for this cogent argument against cursive writing as an elementary school requirement. While I personally enjoyed learning it in 3rd grade, at which time I was a voracious reader already, I can see how it would feel like putting the cart before the horse for many students. Several teachers have told me that there is a correlation between reading and cursive, but their arguments are fuzzy. I don’t see how this is so, since we all learn to read in print or typescript. It had occurred to me that art classes would be the place to introduce cursive. I would propose doing a unit on it in 3rd or 4th grade, and continuing to make it a short unit throughout junior high. Those who fall in love with cursive will take the ball and run, so to speak. And for the rest, if it is not mandatory perhaps they can relax and learn to enjoy it a bit. In this age of ubiquitous computers, do you think it makes more sense to teach touch-typing in elementary grades, rather than handwriting?

    • While I think that touch typing is more relevant to the purpose of written communication than cursive – it does create clear and understandable written information after all – I’m not sure it needs to be introduced in elementary school. Like cursive it’s kind of coordination intensive. And like cursive it’s not that hard to pick up on your own if you’re really determined. I’m sure there are free tools out there to help with the process, as well.
      Another consideration is relevance. Already I know students in high school who tell me they can type faster with their thumbs on a touchscreen than with all ten fingers on a QWERTY keyboard. It’s entirely possible that in the next ten years or so we’ll see a shift away from QWERTY entirely and into a totally different type of keyboard better suited for small, handheld devices.
      While the alphabet hasn’t changed much in centuries keyboards are a very mutable piece of technology and they’re going to be changing with the times. Elementary is for teaching fundamental skills and I’m not sure typing is going to be fixed enough to count as fundamental in the future. I could be wrong of course but it’s something to consider.

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