To Curse or Not to Curse in the Classroom

dec of independenceIn the Dark Ages when I began teaching, I remember seeing lines of connected script flowing across students’ papers. My, how things have changed! Today, even my honors ninth grade students sometimes confess to me that they cannot even read cursive writing, let alone produce it. This presents a logistical nightmare for today’s students who are required to study original documents such as the Declaration of Independence, diaries, and journal entries–all written in cursive– that the new curricula emphasize, whether it be Common Core, or my own state’s TNReady. Once again, we see proof that common sense does not dominate in education policy. It was not until 2014 that Tennessee legislators passed a bill requiring the teaching of cursive writing.

What happened?

This has caused me to speculate about why exactly cursive was abandoned in the first place. In my quest, I considered and abandoned several theories, finally settling on the one that made at least as much sense as any other. Perhaps it is the expense of the technology-heavy cursive writing program… Wait, that makes no sense. Penmanship is one of the least materials-heavy parts of the curriculum. Could it then be that cursive was deemed unnecessary in an electronic world? Of course, not. Students still need to communicate via pen and paper in schools across the nation and read documents produced in cursive. In fact, research shows that a focus on penmanship, and especially cursive aids in cognitive development.  An article posted on the Psychology Today website “Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter” by William Klemm, Ph.D notes, “Cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual, and tactile information, and fine motor dexterity.” Read the entire article at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/why-writing-hand-could-make-you-smarter.

I have noticed a marked decline in spelling skills related to homophones as students write less in cursive. It is my own belief that as students turn exclusively to printing, they begin to write collections of letters, rather than words. For example, for me the words their and there are simply impossible to confuse when writing because, regardless of their sound, they are completely different words. When I point out a homophone misspelling to a student, I invariably get, “Oh, yeah,” and a quick correction as a response. These students know how to spell the words, but represented by a collection of separate letters, such words present a challenge.

My epiphany

So, why eliminate cursive from the curriculum? Finally, my epiphany arrived: It is a simple misunderstanding. As parents become less involved in schools, their reactions are less based on fact, and more on fear. Take as proof parents who seek to ban the reading of a book they, themselves, have no knowledge of. If we look at cursive through this lens, the answer is clear. It is curse-ive writing. And no one wants students cursing in school. Parents are perplexed by the language their children use at home, and struggling to find an explanation, they hear that schools teach curse-ive. A closer analysis would demonstrate the flaw in this reasoning, but since when have those seeking to remove legitimate educational materials from the classroom for personal reasons turned to logic? As an example, note that To Kill a Mockingbird consistently ranks near the top of the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently banned books. Ignoring the book’s anti-racist message, many have, instead, sought to have it removed for “language” or “themes.” Check out the lists by year at the ALA site. http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10.

bad language If cursive were actually the teaching of cursing, it would, indeed, be an indictment of the American school system. As a high school teacher, I hear students practice their cursing skills, and they are not very accomplished. The cursing of the average high school student is uncreative, repetitive, wordy, and rarely gets the point across. If I were to grade it like a writing assignment, very few would even rise to the Average designation of a C, and certainly, none would merit the Outstanding mark of an A.

I, for one, am glad that cursive has been added back as an essential part of the Tennessee curriculum; I just hope that schools have and take the time to implement it effectively.

Do you still communicate via cursive writing? Can your children?

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7 thoughts on “To Curse or Not to Curse in the Classroom

  1. I’m a homeschooler and I teach my kid cursive. I beleive it engages part of the brain that typing can’t it also helps her know about how we got to just typing and print. I like to give her options so she can express herself however she wants. I think cursive should be taught in schools but sadly many schools are saying lots of things aren’t relevant anymore.

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  2. I agree with MayReign aka A.S.
    My daughter was introduced to cursive writing in third grade, but was not required to continue using it. When I started homeschooling her in 9th grade, I realized that she no longer remembered how to read or write cursive. I added it to our cirriculum toward the end of the year. I think it’s important that she be able to read our historical documents as they were written. I also think that cursive writing is an art, and as such, engages both sides of the brain.

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  3. As someone who regularly must read old documents (in cursive) and who directs the World Handwriting Contest (many of whose entries are written in cursive), I can testify that homophonous misspellings (and other misspellings too) were and are frequent in cursive: even when the writer is not composing original matter, but is simply copying from a prepared text (as is the case with World Handwriting Contest submissions: some of the most beautifully written samples submitted are disqualified because they misspell words in the paragraph that the contestant is required to copy, and this happens as often with samples written in cursive as with samples written in any of the other forms of handwriting.)

    I agree with you that handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising:’at least, once a reader looks it up in primary sources (the originally published studies) rather than remaining content to rely only on second-, third-, and fourth-hand summaries in popular magazines, newspaper articles, and blogs.

    One surprise from the research: legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

    More recently, it has also been documented that cursive does NOT (as so often claimed and hoped)objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia.
    This is what I’d expect from my own experience, by the way. As a handwriting teacher and remediator, I see numerous children, teens, and adults — dyslexic and otherwise — for whom cursive poses even more difficulties than print-writing. (Contrary to myth, reversals in cursive are common — a frequent cursive reversal in my caseload, among dyslexics and others, is “J/f.”)
    — 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.

    There’s even a free iPad app teaching how: called “Read Cursive” — appstore.com/readcursive
    Given the importance of reading cursive, why not teach this vital skill quickly — for free — instead of leaving it to depend upon the difficult and time-consuming process of learning to write in cursive (which will cost millions to mandate)?

    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?
    Just as each and every child deserves to be able to read all kinds of everyday handwriting (including cursive), each and every one of our children — dyslexic or not — deserves to learn the most effective and powerful strategies for high-speed high-legibility handwriting performance.
    Teaching material for practical handwriting abounds — especially in the UK and Europe, where such handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive which is venerated by too many North American educators. Some examples, in several cases with student work also shown: graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/09/08/opinion/OPED-WRITING.1.pdf, briem.net, italic-handwriting.org, studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html, BFHhandwriting.com, handwritingsuccess.com, Lexercise.com, HandwritingThatWorks.com, freehandwriting.net/educational.html )

    Even in the USA and Canada, 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.
    (If you would like to take part in another, ongoing poll of handwriting forms — not hosted by a publisher, and not restricted to teachers — visit http://www.poll.fm/4zac4 for the One-Question Handwriting Survey, created by this author. As with the Zaner-Bloser teacher survey, so far the results show very few purely cursive handwriters — and even fewer purely printed writers. Most handwriting in the real world — 75% of the response totals, so far — consists of print-like letters with occasional joins.)
    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 (and no source is provided on request)

    or, almost as often,

    /2/ when sources are cited and can be checked (by finding and reading the cited document), the sources provided turn out to include and/or to reference materials which are misquoted or incorrectly represented by the person(s) offering these as support for cursive,

    or, even more often,

    /3/ the claimant correctly quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

    Cursive devotees’ eagerness to misrepresent research has substantial consequences, as the misrepresentations are commonly made — under oath — in testimony before school districts, state legislatures, and other bodies voting on educational measures. The proposals for cursive are, without exception so far, introduced by legislators or other spokespersons whose misrepresentations (in their own testimony) are later revealed — although investigative reporting of the questionable testimony does not always prevent the bill from passing into law, even when the discoveries include signs of undue influence on the legislators promoting the cursive bill? (Documentation on request: I am willing to be interviewed by anyone who is interested in bringing this serious issue inescapably before the public’s eyes and ears.)
    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 state and federal 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.

    SOURCES:

    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    /2/ 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

    /3/ 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

    Handwriting research on cursive’s lack of observable benefit for students with dyslexia/dysgraphia:

    “Does cursive handwriting have an impact on the reading and spelling performance of children with dyslexic dysgraphia: A quasi-experimental study.” Authors: Lorene Ann Nalpon & Noel Kok Hwee Chia — URL: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/234451547_Does_cursive_handwriting_have_an_impact_on_the_reading_and_spelling_performance_of_children_with_dyslexic_dysgraphia_A_quasi-experimental_study
    and
    http://dyslexia.yale.edu/EDU_keyboarding.html

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

    
    Ongoing handwriting poll: http://poll.fm/4zac4

    The research most often misrepresented by devotees of cursive (“Neural Correlates of Handwriting” by Dr. Karin Harman-James at Indiana University):
    https://www.hw21summit.com/research-harman-james

    
    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:

    A BRIEF HISTORY OF CURSIVE —

    TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING —

    HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, the World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
    handwritingrepair@gmail.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First, I apologize for the long delay in responding. The end of the school year was mad. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and very informative reply here. There was much here I didn’t know.

      I was especially fascinated by the information on how easily children can learn to read cursive. It never occurred to me that it could be accomplished so quickly. This quickly solves the dilemma of children being able to access primary documents.

      Again, thank you for your insight here!

      Like

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