by Anne G. Faigen
Until a friend described a recent visit with his middle-school-age grandson, I had no idea of a debate raging about the teaching of penmanship. My friend told me, “I got tired of his being in some alternate universe with his electronic gadgets, so I decided to try involving him in something else.” He asked the boy to put aside his handheld gadget so Grandpa could teach him some practical stuff, like filling out a bank deposit slip. He showed his grandson the form and began explaining how to fill it out when the boy interrupted with, “I don’t do cursive.”
My friend’s annoyance reemerged when he told me about the encounter, and my amused response didn’t help. But when I thought about it later, I decided that doing away with cursive really wasn’t funny. What I assumed was bedrock education in elementary schools is no more because some schools no longer include cursive writing in their curriculum. Until my friend’s rant about schools’ failure to teach the basics, I was unaware of the ongoing controversy in educational circles about what was once called penmanship. I was surprised to learn that seven states, including California and Massachusetts, have filed legislation to implement penmanship as a permanent part of their school curriculum.
There are logical arguments to support its demise. Some teachers insist it takes too much time to teach when there are more important things for kids to learn. Skills involving keyboarding, they say, will help their students succeed in school and in careers more than cursive would. In a Washington Post article, Michael Hairston, the head of the country’s largest teachers union, the Fairfax Education Association, calls penmanship “a dying art that has been replaced by technology,” emphasizing that teachers need to make hard choices, given time constraints “and little or no flexibility.” He also said that much of teachers' instructional time is dominated by the need to teach to a standardized test. In an article called “Forget Cursive: Teach Kids How To Code,” author Keith Wagstaff questions what an 8-year-old’s future boss “[is] going to be more impressed by, the ability to write cursive or to code?”
As for me, I’m firmly on the side of continuing to teach our students to read and write cursive. My conviction is partly based on my own experience teaching high school students to write essays demonstrating critical thinking about the literature they were reading. Much of my after-school time was spent writing detailed comments and suggestions in the margins of the essays, the closest I could come to one-on-one teaching in my crowded classrooms. If I had to print my recommendations—something I do slowly and poorly—I would have struggled for many more hours to finish the essays promptly and return them. No matter how elegant the fonts and professional looking their printed work, my students welcomed the handwritten suggestions for strengthening their writing skills.
Cursive is also an effective tool in teaching students with dyslexia, experts say, because all the letters start on a baseline and move fluidly in the same direction, a help to dyslexic learners. A number of research studies also suggest that more areas of the brain are engaged when students use handwriting rather than a keyboard.
What about those occasions when the computer is down but the work has to go on? Business won’t stop because no one knows how to read or write without a computer. And think about all those practical needs for our writing, from signing checks to putting our names on electronic devices when we use credit cards. There are those inevitable forms to be filled out in doctors’ offices, our signatures on drivers’ licenses and, more personally, on birthday cards. At times in our lives when we need words of comfort or encouragement, who doesn’t feel a special warmth in receiving a handwritten note?
As educators and academics respond to the challenges of our technological society, their debate about the merits of teaching penmanship will undoubtedly continue. I’m on the side that hopes, like my indignant friend, that kids will continue to learn cursive.
Writer and educator Anne G. Faigen is the author of several young adult and mystery novels and a former high school English teacher in the suburban Pittsburgh area.