The Great Generational Divide – Print vs. Cursive

During the media hype over a certain person’s political trial, one of the young witnesses on the stand was queried as to whether or not she had actually written a certain note. A sticking point in the trial became that she couldn’t have written it, since she couldn’t even read it. Turns out the young lady in question could not read cursive.

Now, many people brought this up as evidence of her lack of education. I cannot speak as to her education or lack thereof, not knowing her or her history personally. But my own teen son – despite several efforts on the part of his quite decent schools and myself – ALSO cannot read or write in cursive. “They tried teaching me for three years,” he says. Now this is a person who will have in-depth conversations with you about evolution, international politics, and the latest hacker scandals; but he can’t write or read in cursive. And why should he?

When is the last time you hand wrote a letter to someone? When is the last time you wrote anything down at all, even your grocery list? Do kids even pass notes in class anymore? They text each other on their phones, as far as I can tell. On the rare occasions people do write things down, they do so in print-like text more often than not, mimicking the words they see all around them.

Now, I have read a great many articles on this “problem” which is caused by modern technology, mostly mourning the loss of the “art” of cursive. But given that few people mastered that art and more had what they self-deprecatingly referred to as “chicken scratch” which was easily misinterpreted; this seems more a case of typical human resistance to change and new technology. Do we mourn the loss of the ability to read Old English? No – this is no longer our language. Cursive handwriting is a part of our language that is fading as well, and practicing pretty script will become the hipster art of the next generation – something adorably retro, yet almost useless.

One thought on “The Great Generational Divide – Print vs. Cursive

  1. Kate Gladstone

    Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that 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 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 an iPad app teaching kids and others to read cursive, whether or not they write it or ever will write it. The app — “Read Cursive” — is a free download. Those who are rightly concerned with the vanishing skill of cursive reading may wish to visit appstore.com/readcursive for more information.)
    
    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: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/curriculum.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 nor 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,
    
    or
    
    /2/ if a source is cited, and anyone checks it out, the source turns out to have been misquoted or incorrectly paraphrases by the person citing it
    
    or
    
    /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
    
    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 —
    http://youtu.be/3kmJc3BCu5g
    
    TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING —
    http://youtu.be/s_F7FqCe6To
    
    HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —
    http://youtu.be/Od7PGzEHbu0
    
    
    Yours for better letters,
    
    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, the World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
     http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
     handwritingrepair@gmail.com
    
    

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