kitchen table math, the sequel: today's factoid

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

today's factoid

All but five states no longer require the teaching of cursive handwriting in public elementary schools.
With Pen in Hand, He Battles On
By GENA FEITH | September 3, 2012, 4:38 p.m. ET
Another executive decision from central administration.

Oh well. It's not as if handwriting matters, or anything.


Glen said...

Handwriting matters; cursive doesn't.

The fact that a study demonstrates an advantage to handwriting instead of TYPING hardly suggests an advantage to dividing your handwriting focus over two systems, one of which is entirely redundant and of almost no practical use, instead of focusing on mastering the one that is by far the most useful.

I have no objection to cursive as an art form. I've studied calligraphy in three different writing systems, and I love it. I would even encourage it at, say, the high school level, after you are SURE that the kids have their actual handwriting foundation---the one on which they build a *feeling* for spelling and punctuation---rock solid.

But since handwriting matters so much, and I believe it does, kids learning to write should focus on mastering the single, most useful method of handwriting, printing, and building on it, instead of screwing it up with the handwriting equivalent of the lattice method.

Glen said...

A little edit for clarification: when I said I would encourage "it" at the high school level, I meant calligraphy in art class, not cursive in English class.

Catherine Johnson said...

Handwriting matters; cursive doesn't.

You know, before I attended the Morningside Institute, I would have agreed to some extent. (Morningside does not teach cursive, btw. So the people there agree with you)

Today, I think students should be talk to write as quickly and efficiently as possible, and I think speed and efficiency mean some form of cursive, don't they? At least some form of linked 'italic'?

Linked italic, btw, is not the same thing as printing and has to be learned and practiced separately. At least, it does in the remediation program I've used with my own writing. (Getty & Dubay's Write Now.)

If it's possible to print as fast as you write cursive, then I agree -- with the proviso that I strongly disapprove of the idea that students don't need to be able to ***read*** cursive.

Students who can't read cursive -- and they can't read cursive -- who go on to become historians are going to have to be trained to read cursive at the graduate level.

Obviously only a tiny number of students are going to become historians, but the same can be said for the number of students who are going to become mathematicians or specialists in foreign languages. When you decide not to teach the 'tool skills' such disciplines require, you are handicapping students who are headed toward those professions.

Another thing: when I read, I make copious margin and book-jacket notes. I have to print my notes because my cursive is so bad. Printing instead of writing cursive consumes ***lots*** of extra time in my case, precisely because I take such extensive notes.

If I had been taught fluent cursive as a child, I would be much better off.

I believe parents should make the call. If other people don't want their children to learn grammar, fine.

But central administration shouldn't have the power to make that call for parents who do want their children to learn.

Catherine Johnson said...

Is it possible to print as quickly as you write cursive?

Does anyone know?

I'm thinking 'no' ---- but that's an assumption.

Catherine Johnson said...

This study, btw, confirms something I've felt in my bones for years now. I can't read a serious book without writing in it; for me, writing in the book is 'processing' the book.

I now do nearly all my reading on my iPad, and I've been wondering about that. I annotated & highlight like crazy .... but it doesn't 'feel' the same, and I find myself constantly going back to the books to try to remember what I read, consult my notes, etc.

I think I'm going to move to a strategy of buying the books I definitely want to remember in hard copy & reading the rest in e-book form.

SteveH said...

"Is it possible to print as quickly as you write cursive?"

In 7th grade, my English teacher called me a human typewriter. Maybe schools should teach shorthand. I don't get too worked up about the issue. I just wonder what they do with all of the extra time. There are a lot of worse things they do with their time.

"...writing in the book is 'processing' the book."

My son's English teacher last year required what he called citations. He encouraged eveyone to buy their own book so that they can write in it. I think he is hooked now. I used to highlight and write comments, but that seemed to be just a way for me to slow down and concentrate.

Anonymous said...

"actual handwriting foundation?"

This is entirely backwards. Cursive is easier to learn than printing, and is the hand in which those of us who actually write by hand do most of our writing, throughout our schooling and in our lives. Cursive is and should be the actual handwriting foundation.

Teaching printing as handwriting in the early grades is a pedagogical mistake that is now so nearly universal that we can't even see the truth of the matter anymore. Printing is just mimicking typed text by hand. It is not handwriting. If you refuse to teach your children actual handwriting (cursive) you are doing them a grave disservice.

Anonymous said...

Refusing to teach children actual handwriting (i.e. cursive) is the language equivalent of refusing to teach children actual arithmetic. Just as students who didn't memorize their multiplication tables will be unable to compete on a timed algebra test, students who are limited to printing out each letter one by one will be unable to compete on timed essay tests with students who have developed competent handwriting.

Just as students who were denied the opportunity to develop arithmetic fluency in the early grades will tend to dislike and avoid math in later grades, students denied the opportunity to develop rapid cursive handwriting will tend to find writing a chore and avoid classes that involve writing.

Catherine Johnson said...

Cursive is easier to learn than printing, and is the hand in which those of us who actually write by hand do most of our writing


I think Teri is using a program based in this idea...

Why do people always teach printing first? Does that have to do with reading? (And have teachers always taught printing first?)

Catherine Johnson said...

rapid cursive handwriting

I agree.

ALSO - and everyone should think about this - students HAVE to write essays in class & on standardized tests. At least, they do now; I can foresee the day when every student will be able to type an essay in class.

Student handwriting affects the teacher's perception of quality. That happens at an unconscious level, and you don't want your child's handwriting to send an "I'm learning disabled" signal.

Unfortunately, my own child's handwriting does send that signal. I tried to remediate his handwriting, but I hadn't figured out precision teaching at that point and I had to spend too much time reteaching math and paragraph/paper-writing to focus on handwriting.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I can print faster than I can write in cursive. Neither is particularly legible. I can also do a pretty good italic hand, but it is somewhat slower (good for addressing envelopes, not for writing pages of notes). If I valued handwriting more, I would practice and get faster at the italic, rather than wasting my time on cursive.

Cursive is not inherently faster than printing or italic—it was designed to avoid lifting the pen from the paper, to avoid blotches and ink spatter. That technological constraint is irrelevant with most current writing instruments (pencil, ballpoint, felt tip).

Grad students in history are going to have to learn to read very different hands in any case, as the modern "cursive" is only good back to about 1900. Reading other hands requires retraining anyway, and it is not clear that early training in cursive provides any significant boost.

palisadesk said...

I can't provide the cites at the moment, but yes, studies have shown that printing can be faster than cursive. It has fewer superfluous strokes and doesn't devolve into a scribble so readily.

Most fast printers join up *some* letters -- not as many as in joined manuscript. In my own case, I do "th" in two strokes instead of three (using the crossbar of the t to lead into the downstroke of the h).

Some countries, like France, begin with cursive (or they used to).

The cursive vs. manuscript debate has evidence on both sides, so it would seem that whichever an individual can do best is the preferable one. Children with poor graphomotor control will endure agonies trying to produce quality cursive. I'd rather invest the effort into more critical skills.

We can always encourage the study of calligraphy as part of the art curriculum. Some students will get interested in cursive that way.

SteveH said...

"Refusing to teach children actual handwriting (i.e. cursive) is the language equivalent of refusing to teach children actual arithmetic. "

This is not true.

Anonymous said...

"Today, I think students should be taught to write as quickly and efficiently as possible, and I think speed and efficiency mean some form of cursive, don't they? At least some form of linked 'italic'?"

Steve already addressed this in passing, but if you *REALLY* believe this, then we should skip cursive and teach some sort of shorthand.

But no one is advocating teaching shorthand.

As with so much in school, the question is: How many hours are you proposing to spend on this (with the implicit ... and what current activity will you take the time away from)?

The printing vs. cursive arguments seem to me a lot like the "Latin vs not" arguments(*). Yes, all things being the same, learning Latin is great. But all things are not the same. So what do you spend less time on so that you free up time for Latin? And what are the justifications?

Most of the pro-Latin arguments seem fairly weak to me. To pick two:
(1) It teaches you to think logically. Well, maybe. But a course in *logic* would do that, too. And probably much more effectively.
(2) You can read works like "The Aeneid" in the original. Um ... okay. But ancient Greek has a much richer literature. And modern french even more so than ancient Greek.

Given infinite time, cursive is a fine skill to learn. As is calligraphy. And how to use a slide rule. But we don't have infinite time.

I find that I pretty much never use cursive. My father was the same (in fact, engineers traditionally used something called "engineering lettering" which was intended to be clear and readable. This is not cursive). And I have a hard time justifying several hundred hours toward this skill.

-Mark Roulo

(*) In spite of the fact that I find most arguments in favor of learning Latin to be weak, this is the "foreign" language I'm teaching my kid. Go figure :-)

MagisterGreen said...

Oh..oh..buttons have been pushed. ;p

Here's my stock statement (it's not MINE, but it's what I use, courtesy of Dorothy Sayers): ' The sort of argument which continually crops up in correspondence upon the teaching of Latin is: "Why should children waste time learning a dead language when Spanish or what-have-you would be much more useful to him in business?" The proper answer, which is practically never given, is the counter-question: "Why should a child waste time learning half a dozen languages from scratch, when Latin would enable him to learn them all in a fraction of the time?" '

(Fair warning - Sayers admits she was never good at Latin, never used it later in life except as an aid to other languages, and was a stalwart advocate that every student should start with Latin, although not things like the Aeneid)

Here's the link:

I feel about Latin the same way I feel about cursive (and I'm the first to admit my cursive is horrible unless I'm slow and methodical about it). Everyone should start with it because wherever you go from there is only easier.

Glen said...

If it's possible to print as fast as you write cursive, then I agree

Good. If I recall correctly, those who print all the time tend to top out at about 25 characters per second, while those who write in cursive all the time top out at about 30 CPS. However, at these speeds, the cursive is less legible to third parties, to machine handwriting recognition systems, and to the writers themselves. If equivalent legibility is required, the cursive writers have to dial it back so much that they can't keep up with the printers.

My recollection comes from the study of handwriting recognition systems (ironically bringing us back to Jeff Hawkins). The idea is that the human should write using the method that is most comfortable at the highest input speed, and the machines should learn to deal with it. So what method is it? My recollection of studies on handwriting comes from these discussions.

First of all, research before 1970 or so can't be used, because it is based on pens with low-viscosity ink: dip pens, fountain pens, cartridge pens, and so on. These pens have a bead of ink on the page that has to be dragged. Dragging that bead of ink is what created the need for cursive. With pencils, chalk, crayons, etc., you could print, but printing with a pen was slow and tedious, because of that bead of ink. Cursive allowed you to speed up significantly without spatter and blobs. Cursive with a dip pen is much faster.

I think that our assumption about the speed advantage of cursive is a legacy of the era of dip pens---it used to be true, but not any longer.

Twenty-first century students use pens with polymerizing ink. There is no ink bead to control. You can print as fast as your hand can move with a ballpoint pen, a gel pen, a felt-tip pen, etc. The result is that printing is roughly as fast as cursive (again, roughly 25 vs 30 CPS with a modern pen, if memory serves) and can be faster if legibility matters (and it does matter, right?)

Printing has no meaningful speed disadvantage and, if you care about legibility, may have the advantage. Beyond that is the consideration of speed of *reading*. Even where cursive is done carefully enough that it can be read as accurately as printing, can it be read as *fast*? Surely the amount of speed you have left once you meet the demand for accuracy matters both for writing *and reading*.

Imagine you're tired, bleary-eyed, and you have to read a difficult 50-page chapter in your textbook for a test tomorrow. Unfortunately, you don't have the original book, only two handwritten copies of the chapter. One is hand printed. The other is handwritten in cursive. That's all you know. Which would you rather read? Even if you knew that both were written well enough that you could accurately decode each letter, which would your tired eyes prefer to read 50 pages of?

If cursive is as comfortable to read, as legible (in terms of accuracy), and is noticeably faster to write than printing, why don't the great majority of us adults who had to write in cursive for years continue to write in cursive most of the time now (when we handwrite?) My observation is that most such adults I've worked with have drifted back to printing almost everything, with some messy vestiges of cursive in the printing.

I think the reason is that cursive has no practical speed advantage when writing, and it is at a clear disadvantage at everything else relevant to "fluency." And we divide our kids' precious handwriting focus for this?

Glen said...

And as for learning to *read* cursive, the question is when. I think they should be able to read historical documents, too--eventually. So, would it be better to have them, as they begin to read, split their reading among documents with both modern and archaic spellings? Make them take spelling tests in which some tests use the modern spellings and others test the archaic variants? Just make sure they get a good start by learning multiple, redundant spelling systems at the same time?

Or, would it make more sense, even for future historians, to focus on ONE spelling standard in the early years, master it, use it exclusively until it is rock solid and *only then* introduce them to the variants? I think the latter is the way to go for spelling and for handwriting.

Glen said...

This is about pedagogical effectiveness and efficiency for kids who are becoming literate, not about whether there are uses for cursive.

I love cursive as an art form. I have a nice collection of pre-WWII steel nibs of various designs that I've used for English calligraphy and bamboo brushes I've used for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean calligraphy. In English, the only calligraphy I'm interested in doing myself is some form of cursive (usually copperplate).

I also have to read a lot of cursive. I've spent countless hours in genealogical research, poring over old handwritten documents with a magnifying glass, finding words I recognized, extracting from them a table of letter forms, and using that table to decode unknown words.

And ironically (in light of the comments on Latin), as the documents go back beyond the early 1600s, I end up having to read LATIN in cursive.

But these are specialty skills, and there are an endless number of specialty skills that can be added later on top of a solid foundation. First, build the solid foundation. Good pedagogy means prioritizing, focusing, and mastering. It requires picking a very few things that serve as the foundation of all that will come after, and focusing intensely on those few things until they are mastered.

Cursive is useful to me, but so are a lot of skills that I don't think belong in a properly focused elementary school curriculum. I think that in this century cursive is a specialty skill that is not valuable enough to justify defocusing early literacy building.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Weighing in on a couple of things here:

1) Latin teaches you pure grammar; there's no escaping it. You *have* to learn parts of speech, subjects, objectives, the relationship between words in a sentence. Useful in and of itself? Maybe, maybe not. But BOY does it make it easier for you to learn other (western) languages. All the pieces are already there; you just have to memorize.

2) The handwriting debate. From my perspective, the ability to write fast and in some kind of shorthand is incredibly important because it allows you to move between concrete and abstract, albeit at a very simple level. My students have a very hard time with this, in part I think because they're accustomed to typing things, and they also have a very hard time moving between concrete and abstract. Correlation or causation, I don't know, but I think there's a link somewhere. Writing fast means writing to the point and expressing your thoughts very precisely; it doesn't allow for extraneous information.

When I took notes in high school, I had my own shorthand and symbols for everything; that carried over to the SAT automatically. My students actually need to be taught how to represent ideas in symbols (even things as basic as writing H20 for water); otherwise, they'd waste huge amounts of time spelling everything out. I was shocked when I first discovered how much trouble they had with that.

Glen said...

My students actually need to be taught how to represent ideas in symbols

I think it's great that you do this.

Catherine Johnson said...

haven't read everything yet - looking forward! - but wanted to respond quickly to gasstation re: "italic hand."

When I use the word 'italic' to describe the Getty/Dubay system of remediation, I'm talking about a type of printing with little 'hook-ups' to the letter next door.

Interestingly, Getty/Dubay teach printing FIRST and 'italic' printing SECOND.

I don't know if they need to do that ----- ???

Catherine Johnson said...

From my perspective, the ability to write fast and in some kind of shorthand is incredibly important because it allows you to move between concrete and abstract, albeit at a very simple level.



Need for speed.

btw, I've mentioned the boy I tutor in a neighboring town a few times.

Well, guess what?!

He is now going to do fluency timings for handwriting. He has a significant problem with handwriting (that I think has nothing to do with the instruction he's had), and it is ***painful*** to watch him write math equations. I mean that word seriously: it is painful. His mom agrees.

At Morningside, they had me working with two boys who had the same problem --- and I saw huge improvement in one 24-hour period.

Speed drills are magic, it seems.

I went over to my student's house last night, and he sat down cheerfully, with a minimum of resistance, and INSTANTLY raced through 15-second timings. (I think 15 seconds was palisadesk's recommendation -- have to find her Comment & pull it up front.)

This is a student who normally has a very significant problem training his attention on whatever we're doing. With the timer, and the 'race,' his attention was riveted.

I've got to write more about this ---- I now think the whole 'extra time' for kids with disabilities approach is exactly the opposite of what they actually need.

Another thing: so far, it looks to me as if parents can handle fluency timings at home. They're super-short (1-minute timings, at most 3 per day, I ***think***), and I'm guessing kids aren't going to wear you out resisting.

You see progress so quickly that that's a source of reinforcement, too.

At least, this is the way it looks to me at present.

Catherine Johnson said...

Erica - if you're around - my entire class yesterday had problems with the "Valentine's Day" sentence!

You've got to get something written on your blog about anaphora, and so will I ----

For everyone else, at some point I'll get Morningside's instruction on anaphora and reading written up.

For the time being, I have now discovered something Erica has been seeing for a long time: students have trouble with anaphora.

Here's the sentence my students had trouble with:

"Some holidays are greatly overrated, Valentine's day is one of them."

My students thought this sentence was correctly punctuated because "Valentine's day is one of them" is not a complete sentence.

Some of my students were adamant that "Valentine's day is one of them" is incomplete because it doesn't make sense on its own.

I am desperately seeking (which means frantically constructing) anaphora worksheets now.

Catherine Johnson said...

My students actually need to be taught how to represent ideas in symbols

Oh, that's interesting!

It doesn't surprise me,'s amazing, the number of seemingly obvious shortcuts people don't come up with ---- and when I say 'people,' I include myself.

This is why we have TEACHING instead of DISCOVERING.

Yes, there's a lot of simple, easily discoverable STUFF out there, but generationally speaking you save a whole lot of time if the grownups just TELL that stuff to the youngsters.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Some of my students were adamant that "Valentine's day is one of them" is incomplete because it doesn't make sense on its own.

Catherine, that is EXACTLY the kind of sentence my students have trouble with. That's why I do so many "is it a sentence or not?" drills with my students. They can't tell. Even kids at $40,000/year Manhattan private schools (especially kids at $40,000/year Manhattan private schools!) just can't figure it out. They can't separate grammar from context. That's why they write endless comma splices. I have one student right now, a very bright rising senior at a notoriously progressive Manhattan private school, whom I recently spent an entire session just doing "is it a sentence or not?/punctuate the comma splices" with, and the next practice SAT she took, she still got loads of them wrong! I'm going to keep having to write her drills. I bet that in her entire education, no one has ever made her do this. What disturbs me, though, is that her teachers have apparently looked past the problem for years.

Catherine Johnson said...

I end up having to read LATIN in cursive.


Dianne McGuinness has an interesting story (which I hope is right....) --- anyway, she has an interesting story about going to a library in Europe to research something to do with illuminated manuscripts.

The library wouldn't let her make copies, so she had to copy passage by hand, and she says that the process of copying the passages caused her to suddenly 'see' the letters as distinct, to see the boundaries.

I was struck by that story, and I ***suspect*** (but don't know) that a phenomenon of this kind may be related to a learning advantage of writing over keyboarding (assuming that advantage definitely exists).

I also suspect that 'copy work' is useful because, as you copy, you start to parse the phrases of a sentence; having to copy a sentence may cause you to start to chunk it properly.

I don't know whether any of this is true, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is.

TerriW said...

Catherine: We are using Memoria Press' New American Cursive right now, and they do recommend starting cursive early.

I recall them arguing two points: first, after spending all that time becoming proficient and building speed with manuscript, you suddenly switch gears and speed goes way, way frustratingly down for some time. Second, that you tend to end up with this bizarre hybrid of half manuscript/half cursive handwriting. (I have that.)

I am at a pretty cynical stage right now, though, as to trying to figure out what "works" with my kids. Knowing what "works" in a homeschool setting has a different set of peculiarities than figuring it out in a multi-child classroom setting.

For example, there's nothing to stop you from chucking out a curriculum and starting a new one. As many times as you want. (Well, funds permitting.)

So, on the one hand, you can say, "Well, I tried Curriculum A, and it didn't work, and I tried Curriculum B, and it didn't work, but then I tried Curriculum C, and that was the ticket!"

On the other hand, it's quite possible that what happened was during the time that you were futzing around with A and B, your child's brain or motor development caught up to whatever you were trying to teach them in the first place, but now Curriculum C gets the accolades.

I mean, in the end what matters most is that they learned it. But I can't tell you if my child did better with cursive because, well, her fine motor skills happened to be well primed at the time we started MP or if cursive itself was a better choice.

(We are still doing manuscript on the side so I suppose I could do some comparison, except for the mitigating factor that we now have to beat out the bad habits that got ingrained.)

Shannon Severance said...

Catherine, I'm not sure what you mean by, "Interestingly, Getty/Dubay teach printing FIRST and 'italic' printing SECOND"

They have "Basic Italic" and "Cursive Italic"

I think you are referring to the basic italic as printing, but its form differs from most manuscript.

SATVerbalTutor. said...


When I was in tenth grade, my biology teacher required everyone in my class to hand-copy their notes every evening and organize them into outline form. Amazingly enough, we didn't mind that much. She was a fantastic teacher, one of the best I had in high school, and I still remember a fair amount of what I learned in that class. I think having to rewrite everything sealed it in -- something about the physical process of copying made things impossible to forget. I don't think any amount of technology can substitute for that.