kitchen table math, the sequel: they do what they do

Monday, January 9, 2012

they do what they do

A teacher friend told me her district is not going to teach cursive handwriting any more. The children entering Kindergarten next year won't be able to write cursive script, and they won't be able to read cursive script. Their parents' love letters will be as indecipherable to them as 1960s shorthand is to me.

My friend thinks dropping cursive is a bad idea, but no one asked her. No one asked the parents, either, or the taxpayers. District administrators made the call, and that is that. They are the deciders.*

Meanwhile some children will undoubtedly suffer in ways the deciders have failed to consider:
Cursive longhand helps some people in a way few would think about. I am dyslectic to the point that I had to depend on others to read to me for many years. Over 50 years ago I received an engineering degree, and went on to a successful career supervising the design and construction of several big-ticket projects.
With my dyslexia pattern I would never print "dog" as "god" but I could, even today, print "dog" as "bog" and not know the difference, even if someone pointed it out to me. I do not make these mistakes when writing in longhand. I hope the schools continue to teach this method of writing to the dyslectic students.
Ridgefield, Wash.
July 16, 2011
I don't use the word "decider" as a slam against President Bush. Deciders is an excellent word.


Catherine Johnson said...

I have only tonight discovered that I was taught D'Nealian cursive when I was a child.

I always thought we learned the Palmer Method.

SteveH said...

When my mother-in-law died, we found a number of shorthand notes we couldn't read.

TerriW said...


We've actually begun cursive with Audrey (would be 2nd grade) using the Memoria Press materials. They argue not only for teaching cursive at *all*, but also to teach it early -- preferably first grade. (They cover why in the introduction sample on the site.)

I'm not sure if I buy their reasoning for why it should be taught early (or, heck, even at all), but it's yet another one of those things on the stack of "Darn it, I just want my kid to know how to do it."

Anonymous said...

You are lucky to have learned D'Nealian instead of Palmer. The D'Nealian is easier to write, easier to read, and looks better.

I was taught Palmer method, and I never use cursive any more—it is simply too awful to look at.

Catherine Johnson said...

Interesting. Don't know why I always thought I'd learned Palmer -----

I don't use cursive, either, because my handwriting is bad.

A few years ago, I tried to remediate Chris's handwriting, along with his spelling and his math.

That proved a bridge too far, but I **did** improve mine by practicing the Write Now program. (As I recall, the author teaches a highly simplified connected-printing to people like doctors whose handwriting is unreadable.)

Funny thing: I apparently have now spent enough years 'practicing' the Write Now printing that my cursive has improved.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Steve - did your mother-in-law know shorthand?

In the post, I included a link to a WSJ article about a cottage industry of people who can be hired to transcribe such documents.

Catherine Johnson said...

Terri- looking forward to reading.

But FIRST: why don't I a) schedule some writing time and then b) actually do what I've scheduled myself to do.

Barry Garelick said...

This means that signatures will no longer be in cursive. The only time I use cursive is when I sign my name. Oh, plus my printing is half cursive half printing. Some letters, like "g", "r", and "s" are just easier to write in cursive so they connect to the next letter.

TerriW said...


Part of the MP argument for early cursive is that if you wait until a student is fast and proficient in manuscript before switching, you will be slowing them down considerably when they make the switch and also creating the manuscript-cursive hybrid that so many of us write in today as they attempt to gain speed back by incorporating what they're already proficient at.

Catherine Johnson said...

Debbie has a hilarious story about the SAT monitor coaching students through the signature portion of the SAT.

You have to sign a statement saying that you are who you say you are, and students in the room didn't know cursive.

The proctor talked them through their own signatures.

Barry Garelick said...

Terri, I'm not arguing against cursive at all. Just stating what was the case for me, and probably for the reasons you've given.

Jen said...

Doesn't Europe only teach [a type of] cursive? I believe that they teach little kids letters with connectors attached and then pretty quickly (1st or 2nd grade) have them just start attaching them.

It seems like this is a tidbit of information I either learned in HS or college in French class or maybe from French neighbors growing up, so perhaps I should actually google it!

I know a 6h grade teacher who actually devotes a small lesson and some practice time to making signatures. He explains the purpose of them, shows them his and other examples and has the kids practice. Not really a bad idea and easy enough to keep it up by having them sign certain school papers.

Crimson Wife said...

I broke down and switched my oldest to Memoria Press' "New American Cursive" even though the ugliness of the style makes me cringe. But after a year of trying to teach a pretty-looking cursive (Peterson Directed) and getting nothing but meltdowns as a result ("too loopy" and "too slanted" were the chief complaints), my DD picked up the NAC in literally 3 weeks. My 6 y.o. has asked to learn it even though he's still working on his lowercase manuscript. So I'm going to be working on both simultaneously.

palisadesk said...

The research actually shows that "joined manuscript" is both faster and more legible than cursive, especially at maximum speed. It doesn't degenerate into a scrawl or scribble the way the "loopy" styles do.

Kate Gladstone is the handwriting go-to guru, her website Handwriting Repair has a ton of resources on the topic. She recommends a number of the italic and quasi-italic styles, which have always been dominant in the UK and Australia.

It's untrue that traditional cursive will eliminate, or prevent, b-d reversals and other such anomalies. I've had a number of students who consistently made b-d errors in cursive -- "The bog is darking," and so on -- even though the letters did not look anything alike. Kids with graphomotor output issues have a terrible time learning traditional cursive writing, and their writing always looks like chicken tracks despite their best efforts. Italic and manuscript-style joined cursive, a la "Handwriting WIthout Tears" yield better results.

rocky said...

I can't remember who showed me that the word "bed" looked like a little bed, with a headboard and footboard.

Catherine Johnson said...

Does "manuscript" mean printing? (Or what I call 'printing'?)

Catherine Johnson said...

I was reading the D'Nealian website...the theory of D'Nealian is that the printed letters are already like cursive so the transition difficulties are minimal (or minimized).

D'Nealian print (manuscript?) letters lean right and have little 'connectors,' just as Jen describes above.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's the Write Now program I used with Chris & me. It made a big difference in my handwriting (though I didn't get to the cursive part of her program ...)

I've been eyeing that book on my helf lately...

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's New American Cursive.

You're right!

It's not too pretty!

But definitely not too loopy, either.

Glen said...

I see no good reason to waste young kids' time on cursive. [I could change my mind if I got new evidence, but until then...] Why should we learn two contradictory handwriting systems poorly, one useful and one obsolete, instead of focusing all available time on mastering the useful one?

Barry mentions someone else's big argument (not his position) as: Part of the MP argument for early cursive is that if you wait until a student is fast and proficient in manuscript before switching, you will be slowing them down considerably when they make the switch....

When they make what switch? The only switch anybody has voluntarily made for two generations now is AWAY from cursive. How happy are you when your doctor scrawls something illegible that, if misread, could kill you? Wouldn't you prefer it if he had mastered printing (manuscript) and never polluted it with cursive? How happy are people in a conference room when a presenter writes important points on the whiteboard in cursive? Almost no one ever does, because it is so irritating to everyone else.

Like Barry and gasstation, like everyone I know under the age of 60, I gave up cursive years ago. A few years ago, I did an informal survey of my colleagues and found that we had all given up cursive except for a few vestigial tasks that, we realized, didn't really demand cursive. We all used keyboards when possible (95% of the time), and fell back to printing for the other 5% when keyboards weren't usable.

You can print just as quickly, and much more legibly, than you can write in cursive AS LONG AS you aren't using a quill pen or its steel (or gold) equivalent. Those tools ceased being mainstream decades ago. A fine, flex-nib fountain pen doesn't want to be bonk-bonk-bonked on its delicate nose, but a ballpoint or gel pen doesn't care. A quill or fountain pen needs you to keep drawing the ink bead down the line, so you don't get messy blobs; a disposable office pen has no such problem.

Cursive was an adaptation to writing instruments that are no longer standard. Mastery of a single, consistent form of handwriting (printing) is what we should focus on now, and when it's time to switch, the switch is to a keyboard, not a quill.

It might be seen as odd that a happy member of the Fountain Pen Network (google it) like me would take such a position. To many pen lovers like me, it's heresy. I've given both of my boys the thrill of drawing "first ink" with virgin flex-nib pens manufactured before WWII, and you don't "print" with pens like that. They and I practice our copperplate hands with these pens, though we aren't good at it.

But, this is part of our home art class, not part of English class. It's an enrichment skill that I enjoy, not a fundamental. Unlike printing, it could be replaced by countless alternative enrichment skills. Our "mile wide, inch deep" schools can't afford to further defocus writing instruction with parallel handwriting systems. Every one of you talking about how your writing is a mishmash of printing and cursive is the product of teaching cursive to people who should have been mastering printing.

[As for learning to read cursive, that's a quick lesson for high schoolers with years of reading behind them. People read text written in bizarre fonts in ads, videogames, etc. all the time without being able to write in those fonts. Master reading first; then master reading in funny characters.]

SteveH said...

People used to do drafting in ink on vellum or mylar. Then it switched to pencil (that's how I learned), and then everyone switched over to using the computer. They worried about it for a long time, and many felt that you have to draft by hand first to better understand things. Understand what, I don't know.

My mother has an old family notebook from the 1800's that is filled with many pages of practice for each cursive letter. Obviously, it was a prized possession. It seems quaint now.

I learned cursive, but I only use it for signing my name. My seventh grade English teacher called me a human typewriter. The big thing now is early "keyboarding" and I can't disagree with that, but they don't expect much mastery there.

The first question I had about this was what they were going to do with the extra time? My son learned cursive, but they never taught kids how to hold a pencil correctly. Unfortunately, they will switch from one wasted effort to another.

SteveH said...

Yes, my mother-in-law knew shorthand. She was an executive secretary whose technical skills ended with the IBM Selectric. She never came to grips with a word processor's Insert, Delete, and Back Space keys - also the idea of write first and then format.

Catherine Johnson said...

Why should we learn two contradictory handwriting systems poorly, one useful and one obsolete, instead of focusing all available time on mastering the useful one?

They're not going to master one. Nothing is taught to mastery.

Isn't cursive faster?

I don't care what other people's kids learn (not when it comes to cursive), but I would like to have a vote as to what my kids learn.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve - Temple saw huge problems in people's drafting when the switch to architectural software came in. (She would be sent drawings to look over.)

Architects who learned to draft by hand and then switched over had no problem, but architects who used CAD from the get-go made crazy mistakes, like designing passageways that were narrower than the body of a cow and the like.

She said what was happening was that people were just clicking on icons and putting them on their drawings without having any idea of the measurements involved.

She saw that over and over again.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's untrue that traditional cursive will eliminate, or prevent, b-d reversals and other such anomalies.

That may be true in the aggregate -- but is it true of this man? He says it's not (though he could be mistaken).

If it is not true, if there are kids who fare better with cursive, they should be taught cursive.

I object strongly to schools simply decreeing, from on high, that henceforth they will no longer teach a skill or a subject parents (and many taxpayers) value.

And it is a values issue.

The schools made the same judgment about formal instruction in grammar. You don't 'need' formal instruction in grammar, it 'doesn't help' with writing, so we're dropping it. Our call.

The decision to teach or not teach any particular content can't be left to administrators or to researchers.

Ultimately, these decisions involve values, and values come from the people who support the schools and send their children to the schools.

Barry Garelick said...

I can't tell if cursive is faster than printing. I was excited about learning cursive because I thought you could write faster, but it didn't seem to do anything for me. My handwriting got so bad when I wrote fast I couldn't read it. When I take notes, I use my system of hybrid printing/cursive.

SteveH said...

"...designing passageways that were narrower than the body of a cow and the like."

We talked about this years ago too. My view is that it's not the computer software's fault. If students learn to use a CAD program instead of learning about design, they end up being CAD jockeys and not designers. Some designers just do sketches and let the hired help do the CAD modeling.

When I was at Michigan, I took a finite element analysis course where we had to learn how to use NASTRAN on our own time. The course was about analysing structures. Perhaps at some colleges you can get credit for only learning about tools.

SteveH said...

This is really about curriculum input from the community. Our town set up a Citizen's Curriculum Committee ages ago and I managed to get on the committee. It never held one meeting. The school obviously didn't want it and most parents didn't want to get into a fight with the school. The schools now have parent/teacher school improvement teams (I was a member of one of those once), but they never ventured into curriculum choices. That's their turf.

"Ultimately, these decisions involve values..."

They believe that that's their turf too. They talk about parents as stakeholders, but input is allowed only on the fringes. Our schools had a 5 year strategic planning session that was open to the community, but basic assumptions (like full inclusion and no acceleration) were off-the-table. It was a way to make it seem like they were open to public input.

kcab said...

I'm glad that my son's school is not part of this trend. His teacher (5th grade) has been requiring him to complete much of his written work in cursive, plus sending home additional practice worksheets. She's not actually a fan of cursive and didn't push it at all when my daughter had her a few years ago. I believe the principal has requested more emphasis on handwriting since that time.

For us, I'm glad that cursive is being required by the school. My son's cursive is much more legible than his print. Printing, he tends to redraw his letters, sometimes multiple times, and seems to get so stuck on the act of writing that he forgets words he was going to write. Cursive is better, no over-writes, better sentence structure, more legible in general. Greater tendency to misspell in cursive, but infrequently enough to not seem a problem. The first time a paper done in cursive came home, I thought he had brought home someone else's work by mistake.

The push to get him to write in cursive is a couple of months old. Recently, I noticed that the legibility of his print has improved. That's probably mostly due to age & practice in general, but I like to think that the cursive work has helped.

My own writing was a disaster as a kid. It improved a lot when I started taking class notes that I had to reread (in college). Of course, those were mostly math or diagrams anyway.

Sure, typing is important, ability to draw on the computer is nice, but everyone in my household of a bazillion computers does a lot of writing and drawing on paper too. Our non-text ideas in particular seem to flow more easily onto paper than the computer.

Anonymous said...

Print or cursive, I can't believe no one so far has brought up "fine motor skills", which seem to be lacking in the children who have not practiced writing by hand. And wasn't there a post somewhere back about fine motor skills and handwriting practice affecting some part of the brain involved in learning?

Anonymous said...

Cursive writing is an art and art should not be mass produced.


Michael Weiss said...

Here is an area in which I am almost completely ignorant. But has anyone looked at this study?

Glen said...

That's an article, not a study, and it makes claims about the importance of learning to use the hand for writing as opposed to just the keyboard, and the importance of learning manual skills as opposed to purely knowledge-based learning, and the claim that learning a fine motor skill has an impact on the brain, and so on.

Fine, so that's the argument for learning to write by hand. But not once is cursive handwriting contrasted with printing handwriting. It simply uses the term "cursive handwriting" to refer to all writing done by hand, then offers claims that learning to write by hand is good, THEREFORE cursive should be taught in schools.

I'm not finding this "study" very persuasive.

I'm strongly in favor of mastering writing by hand. Focus promotes mastery. Focus on one system of handwriting instead of two parallel systems, master it, and use that mastered, consistent motor skill in support of mastery of writing mechanics, such as spelling.

In later years, cursive reading will be easy with a small bit of practice, provided reading skills themselves are good. We see advertising text all around us written in strange fonts that we can't personally write, and we read them easily, so the need to occasionally read cursive is not a sufficient argument to make small children WRITE it.

And if you do want to write it in later years, for aesthetic reasons, learn it aesthetically, in a real calligraphy class.

And Catherine asked, "Isn't cursive writing faster?" No, unless you are using a pen that puts a liquid bead of ink on the paper that you have to control (quill, dip pen, brush etc.) Otherwise (pencil, crayon, ballpoint, gel, marker, etc.) printing is just as fast, which is why most adults in a hurry to jot down a note don't feel driven to write it in cursive. They (implicitly) know it won't be any faster.

Anonymous said...

I also see it as a literacy problem. The inability to actually read original documents such as the Declaration of Independence bothers me somewhat.

And some people do write faster with cursive. I don't, but I know those who do.

Hey, we can all eventually be cursive translators for the youngsters.


Glen said...

Literacy problem? Declaration of Independence? Take a look at the second line of the Declaration of Independence.

My guess is that you never learned any variant of Fraktur script in second grade, yet without a translator you easily read the line, "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America."

Should we teach that to second graders, too, along with "felf-evident" and "fecuring these rights"?

Or is this, as I claim, a non-issue? If ever our educational system decided that it was still important for the next generation of voters to study eloquent arguments in favor of limiting government power (I won't hold my breath), the real problem would be the vocabulary, literary phrasing, the references to historical events, the phrases from Locke's and Montesquieu's works---the many "mere facts" they would need in order to be able to understand documents such as the Declaration and the Constitution. Learning enough to be able to read and understand would take a lot of time.

But the script the document is written in is a non-issue. If they don't have the linguistic and historical knowledge, the script is irrelevant. If they do, then the script is still irrelevant, because if you have the background knowledge to read the printed version, ten minutes with the printed and handwritten versions side by side would be enough to adapt to the script.

This is no argument for defocusing writing instruction in elementary school.

And, of course, some people write more quickly in cursive. Some people write more quickly in Japanese. It depends on what you are used to. If you master printing, you'll be able to print as quickly as you would have been able to write in cursive, without wasting time learning a second, redundant handwriting system when you could have been spending that time on something like real, not invented, spelling.

SteveH said...

"to study eloquent arguments in favor of limiting government power (I won't hold my breath)"

How about all of the arguments and history (for and against) since that time? You don't need that to make your point.

I don't have a strong opinion about cursive, but it wasn't much of a burden for my son, and I'm not sure I would be happier with what they would replace it with. One of the main points of the thread is the lack of curriculum input by parents.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Glen, lighten up.

No, I don't think 2nd graders should read the original Declaration of Independence. Maybe when they're grown perhaps. Is that actually what you thought I meant?

I don't know where you are but writing instruction around here is incredibly "defocused". They've hardly practiced anything before they're keyboarding. My son was typing papers starting in the 4th grade. I noticed in the 8th grade he could hardly print, much less choose cursive as an option.

My other son is special ed. He could barely write so I understood why they didn't spend time with him on cursive. I just taught him at home. Afterwards I wrote him a long note in cursive. He was shocked that he could actually read it.

It's not rocket science.

Yeah, I see a literacy problem. A disconnect from the past. But I'll make sure to provide all kinds of links for you if that's what you need for every argument.

And I agree with Steve that it's about one more thing that parents don't have a say in.


Glen said...

No, Susan, I never thought that you were advocating reading the Declaration in 2nd grade. Sorry if it sounded that way. I thought you were countering my argument against teaching young (elementary) kids a redundant script by claiming that continuing to do so would have literacy advantages *in later years* if, for example, they wanted to read the handwritten Declaration.

My point was that this was not a good argument for continuing to *teach cursive to young kids* because, by the time they were old enough to read the language of the Declaration years later, adapting to the script would be trivially easy. Defocusing their handwriting study at a young age, reducing their chances of mastering printing and wasting valuable time, would give them no important literacy or speed or any other advantage as high schoolers or adults. (And this is not an argument that people should never learn cursive, just that forcing them to learn it as young kids is bad pedagogy.)

This is just like the arguments against the Everyday Math approach to teaching math algorithms, which I hear often on KTM and agree with. Teaching redundant algorithms of little future value to young kids who should be focusing on mastering crucial skills is the same, or very similar, bad pedagogy.

My kids spent far MORE time on a redundant handwriting style (cursive) than they ever did on lattice multiplication or repeated subtraction or whatever EM came up with.

I agree with both you and Steve that parents don't have a choice in this regard, in math or in writing, and I'm explaining why I would advocate ending cursive and focusing entirely on mastering printing (for little kids) if I did have a choice.