Tough times for cursive writing

Penmanship and the cursive style was once at the root of primary education. Photo: Mary Beth Griffo Rigby, CC some rights reserved

How’s your cursive?

Mine was never very good – and it’s sliding toward terrible.

I notice this most each December when I sit down and send some handwritten notes to relatives who don’t use email. The unlucky recipients might prefer the mercy of a typed card.

Good handwriting used to be considered an essential mark of education and culture – even “character”.

No longer. Cursive is on a precipitous decline in North America. The Wall Street Journal recently reported “The New Script for Teaching Handwriting is No Script at All“. 

Nearly all U.S. states have adopted something called Common Core Standards, which do not require teaching cursive writing. Of course, the option to teach cursive may still exist. But with teachers hard-pressed to cover required content, anything considered a frill is often lost.

It’s a similar story in Canada. As Bruce Deachman reports for the Ottawa Citizen, a decade ago Ontario curriculum standards had students learning cursive in grade 3 and using it by grade 4. And today?

“The students at my school are expected to know how to read it,” said one Ottawa elementary teacher who asked to remain anonymous, “but it’s up to the individual teacher to decide whether they teach and practise it.”

Does it matter? Opinions vary. In the 1800’s something called copperplate was held up as the standard of good penmanship. That’s gone and not much missed. If cursive went they same way would we miss it any more than copperplate? After all, the ability to think, write and communicate effectively is the main thing. How that happens is secondary (says one school of thought). The “how” always evolves over time – from clay tablets to quill and ink, steel nib, fountain pen, ball point, typewriter, computer keyboard, etc.

Some make the case that cursive writing builds fine motor skills, which contributes to brain function and basic learning in ways that are seriously underappreciated.

This WSJ article from 2010 says handwriting “trains the brain” citing scientific studies that support learning to form letters by hand as “key to learning, memory, ideas”. 

Literacy comes in different stages. Even after I learned to read plain text, for a few more years cursive was a secret/higher writing code for big kids and grown-ups. Imagine the day (coming soon or already here?) when cursive becomes a distinct generational code, only used and understood by those born in the last century.

Perhaps the wisest among us will master as much as possible: print, cursive, keyboards, computers, smart phones, the next hot thing after that and beyond. (I must be unwise. I lag far behind!)

The way this is trending, though, those without cursive skills won’t think they are missing much.

Out of curiosity, is cursive still taught in your local schools? Do you think cursive is worth preserving?

5 Comments on “Tough times for cursive writing”

  1. Dale says:

    I used to write a passable script. Among the things passed down from my schoolmarm ancestors were century-old Palmer Method workbooks. Now, the only occasion I have to use cursive is in signing my name–pretty infrequent, now that personal checks are going the way of the Dodo bird. I think it will linger on as an art-form for aficionados, like manuscript illumination and brush calligraphy. I suspect biometrics will one day replace even the hand-written signature to bind oneself legally.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  2. Gail Brill says:

    When I was in 3rd grade, I had to write 500 times, “I will make an effort to improve my conduct in the cafeteria”. It was a delightful exercise for me. At that time, I had no idea that I would grow up to be a Professional Calligrapher.
    I do feel like my craft is a dying art form. My new mantra is “SAVE THE SNAIL MAIL”. With cuts to the postal service as a result of people writing by hand less, it’s a rare treat to get a hand written note in the mail. I saw a very funny post on Facebook by the satirical media outlet ‘”The Onion”…it was the Postmaster General saying “come on people, just go send a postcard…you know where the mailbox is!”

    I have been posting as a guest blogger on every Wednesday in February about the art of calligraphy, especially as it relates to brides. My post this week will be about monograms…a joyful coupling of letter shapes! Check it out if you like! And thanks for getting this conversation started!

  3. Lucy Martin says:

    Wow, Gail. 500 times is a lot. You must have raised someone’s ire!

    When I was in 7th grade, our school’s traveling art teacher set us all to work on calligraphy, with bottle ink (!) and a range of nibs, no less. (She was a brave woman.)

    It could have been torture. (Remember, I’m the klutz with crappy writing.) Instead, it was surprisingly engaging.

    Why did I like it? Well, there was the goal, of course. To finish clean samplers of different script fonts. But it was also an exploration of beauty. Not sure if I had the words to say as much then. But even kids can can feel it – an adventure in attempting to connect with something better than the place at which you began.

    What combination of curves and lines look best? How does spacing affect visual impact? Why is something done a certain way more (or less) pleasing to the eye?

    Nothing I produced was perfect. But this teacher was more than brave, she also was kind and wise. She knew how to inspire and gave credit for creativity, effort and improvement – qualities I could bring to the picture. (I want to say this was Mrs. DeMello, but I find I’m no longer sure about the name. She was tall and eccentric – she rocked.)

    Anyway, I think that’s part of this conversation. Typing, texting, etc. those methods have their own utilitarian merit. But I don’t think they touch the same parts of the brain, or unleash quite as much visual creativity.

    Maybe we can encourage youngsters (and oldsters) to find that in other ways? Even doodling might do the job. Anything mindful, that involves hand and eye working together.

    I suspect it may be a small motor-skill and spiritual loss to abandon the intricacies that go into graceful handwriting – even if we still communicate well enough in other ways.

  4. Ellen Rocco says:

    Let’s take it back even further…pre-Gutenberg–when books were hand-copied by scribes. If you’re interested in this subject, I urge you to read the Pulitzer winning “The Swerve,” which explores, among other things, the critical role of the scribe in preserving–or alering–ancient texts.

    Also, I wasn’t sure about the exact meaning of “copperplate,” and if you’re unsure, too, check out this clear wiki entry:

  5. Ellen Rocco says:

    Oops, that should be, “or altering…”

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