Thinking About Cursive in a Digital World

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"What does a cursive Q look like?" I asked my wife after dinner one recent night. We were helping our 5-year-old daughter form uppercase letters in manuscript when it occurred to me that I did not remember how to form a cursive capital Q. It's just not something you write that often. I scribbled a cursive Z, hoping that it would help spark my memory of Q. Weren't they similar? Finally, we resorted to what most people do when they immediately need answers like this: We Googled it.

It turns out that a cursive Q resembles a sweeping, curvy number two with several loops, and the visual helped me instantly remember it. But what this episode also brought to mind was not so much my inability to remember certain cursive letters but a recent concern in my classroom, where I teach middle school English, with my own penmanship, and the balance between teaching skills like cursive handwriting and 21st-century skills in schools.

I take a small degree of pride in writing feedback to my students on their essays, poems, and other written work. I try to be a little humorous. I ask some probing questions. I relate to students' ideas if I can. I do not aim to correct every single problem with each student's paper, but make an effort to highlight several good qualities and areas for improvement. And then I usually wrap up with a summarizing statement—usually as positive as possible to start off, and then if needed a direct statement about what the writer needs to do better, such as "let's talk during your study hall tomorrow about how to keep verb tenses consistent."

But in the last few years, when I have returned papers with comments on them (deliberately not written in red, of course, which could look like a massacre), invariably there are a few students who face a significant stumbling block: They can't read my handwriting, a half-cursive, half-printed type of shorthand that has evolved from my days as a journalist. And there are probably a few more students who do not ask for clarification, who are probably completely confused but eager to move to their next class.

It's not often that I think about cursive writing at all, but between my own failure to remember how to make a cursive Q and recollections of students in recent years who can't decipher my own unique cursive script, I am reminded of the articles written in recent years about the antiquity of cursive penmanship. The writing has been on the wall, as they say, for the last decade: School districts are not spending as much classroom time teaching cursive penmanship. The claim is that there are simply too many more important skills that a student must learn to be successful in school—to read well, compute math, think scientifically, to express one's ideas clearly in writing. In fact, it has been reported that the Common Core State Standards address keyboarding but not cursive handwriting. With less than eight hours a day in school, how can educators justify time teaching tedious cursive letter formation?

At one time, I bemoaned this instructional trend, and not just because when I was in elementary school in the early 1980s handwriting was a more significant part of the curriculum; everyone mastered cursive writing then. I believed it was a valuable skill, and part of me still does. After all, how will children learn to sign their names or read historic documents (or their teacher's comments)?

"In my last 11 years teaching in a middle school, approximately one child per year writes consistently in a cursive script, and that’s only because they want to."

But beyond that, there is an artistic flair about cursive penmanship—everyone's writing is personally symbolic—not to mention the larger benefit of a child interacting with letters and language, and, of course, being neat, which is an underrated skill in itself. I can recall the workbook pages in which I traced and repeated cursive letters. I enjoyed the practice. Back then, it was a progressive step of being an elementary schooler, a rite of passage.

While that rite of passage still exists, it's definitely muted. The attention cursive writing gets is in decline. From what I can see as an educator, the expectation to write in cursive beyond elementary school is essentially absent in some schools. When I was in junior high school and high school, final drafts of writing assignments were to be written in cursive. It was the most formal style we had at the time.

Meanwhile, when students in my school district reach 6th grade, teachers want readable handwriting. Most of the students at this level cannot read cursive well, let alone write it, and they aren't getting any more instruction in penmanship. In my last 11 years teaching in a middle school, approximately one child per year writes consistently in a cursive script, and that's only because they want to. Many teachers generally prefer word-processed work, anyway, because it's much neater.

So with the evolution of writing clearly moving toward composing on the computer—so long, Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils and fun-smelling eraser caps—the question remains: Will learning cursive even matter in years to come?

It's difficult to argue with the theory that learning 21st-century skills must take precedence over less important skills, such as cursive-letter formation. While it's not impossible to do both, something has to give in a curriculum when new skills are introduced. And teetering on the edge, where it has been for some time, is instruction in penmanship.

Peer into the houses of young children and you'll find them using technology as if they were born with the ability. The truth is, children learn quickly. I witness this every day as my 5-year-old and 7-year-old find new uses for our iPad that I didn't know existed. My 5-year-old has learned to reverse the camera image and record videos of herself. She takes photos of my wife and me without our knowing. My 7-year-old checks his fantasy-baseball team, makes roster changes, plays video games, and practices math problems. The other day, he discovered Google Maps and looked up Washington, D.C., and Fenway Park, home of his beloved Red Sox. I thought that was pretty cool.

As my children get older, technology will take on a far greater role. In Glastonbury, Conn., where I teach, the board of education recently authorized funding for every incoming high school freshman and sophomore to get an iPad next year. That is the direction we are headed.

In an ideal world, I'd like to see my children learn the intricacies of forming cursive letters. But the realist in me understands that new skills have arrived. My children will be able to look into history books and observe what a formal letter written in a cursive script once looked like, how the writers of the Declaration of Independence wrote the entire document that way. But generations from now, many adults and children may not be able to figure out one word of it. It will look like a foreign language. Such is change.

As my wife and I continue to work on practicing writing uppercase letters with our daughter, I am hopeful that there are no other letters, besides the cursive Q, which will stump me. But if we encounter one, I know that if we turn to our laptop or iPad, the answer will be only a few seconds away.

Vol. 32, Issue 08, Pages 27, 29

Published in Print: October 17, 2012, as Considering Cursive in a Digital World
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