Thursday, February 21, 2013

The curse of cursive

Here’s a piece published in Prospect this month. I’m not holding my breath about whether it is going to make the slightest impact on the blinkered way this aspect of education is approached – this is one of those issues so ingrained that one rarely gets much more than a dumb stare if it is raised with teachers. I’d love someone to tell me just why cursive is so important in educational terms. They haven’t yet.

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There’s something deeply peculiar about the way we teach children to play the violin. It’s a very difficult skill for them to master – getting their fingers under control, holding the bow properly, learning how to move it over the strings without scratching and slipping. But just as they are finally getting there, are beginning to feel confident, to hit the right notes, to sound a little bit like the musicians they hear, we break the news to them: we’ve taught them to play left-handed, but now it’s time to do it like grown-ups do, the other way around.

All right, I’m fibbing. Of course we don’t teach violin that way. It would be absurd. What would be the point of making it so hard? We wouldn’t do anything so eccentric for something as important as learning a musical instrument, would we? No – but that’s how we teach children to write.

It’s best not to examine the analogy too deeply, but you see the point. The odd thing is that, when most parents watch their child’s hard-earned gains in forming letters like those printed in their story books crumble under the demand that they now relearn the art of writing ‘joined up’ (“and don’t forget the joining tail!”), leaving their calligraphy a confused scrawl of extraneous cusps and wiggles desperately seeking a home, they don’t ask what on earth the school thinks it is doing. They smile, comforted that their child is starting to write like them.

As he or she probably will. The child may develop the same abominable scribble that gets letters misdirected and medical prescriptions perilously misread. In his impassioned plea for the art of good handwriting, Philip Hensher puts his finger on the issue (while apparently oblivious to it):
“You longed to do ‘joined-up writing’, as we used to call the cursive hand when we were young. I looked forward to the ability to join one letter to another as a mark of huge sophistication. Adult handwriting was unreadable, true, but perhaps that was the point.”

The real point is, of course, not that illegibility but that sophistication. When I questioned my friend, a primary teacher, about the value of teaching cursive, she was horrified. “But otherwise they’d have baby writing!” she exclaimed. I pointed out that my handwriting is printed (the so-called ‘manuscript’ form). “Oh no, yours is fine”, she – not the placatory sort – allowed. I didn’t ask whether all the books on my shelves were printed in ‘baby writing’ too.

I did also once ask my daughter’s teachers what they thought they were doing by teaching her cursive. When they realised this was not a rhetorical question but a literal one, there was bemusement and panic. “It’s just what we do”, one said. “We always have”. Another ventured the answer I’d anticipated – the children will be able to write faster – and then added that she thought she’d seen some research somewhere showing that some children find that the flowing movements help to imprint the shape of whole words more clearly in their mind. This was evidently not a question they had faced before.

We tend to forget, unless we have small children, that learning to write isn’t easy. It would make sense, then, to keep it as simple as possible. If we are going to teach our children two different ways of writing in their early years (quite apart from distinguishing capitals and lower-case), you’d think we would ensure we have a very good reason for doing so. I suspect that most primary teachers could not adduce one.

It’s not just about writing, but reading too. “As a reading specialist, it seems odd to me that early readers, just getting used to decoding manuscript, would be asked to learn another writing style,” says Randall Wallace, a specialist in reading and writing skills at Missouri State University.

There are, from time to time, proposals to stop teaching cursive handwriting – but these are usually motivated by the conviction that handwriting is passé in the digital age. The outraged response is that handwriting is an art, that there is an intrinsic value in beautifully formed script, and that to lose it would be a step towards barbarism.

Here I’m with Hensher: we should value skill with a pen. Our handwriting is an expression of our personality and humanity – not in some pseudoscientific graphological sense, but in the same way as is our clothing, our voice, our conversation. Yet these arguments are never really about cursive per se: they are about the good versus the indifferent in handwriting. It is implicitly assumed that the acme of good handwriting is beautiful cursive.

Now, I admire the elegant copperplate of the Victorians as much as anyone. But no one writes like that any more, since no one is taught to. How can we insist that to drop cursive will be to drop beauty and elegance, given that most people’s cursive handwriting is so abysmal? “It has always seemed ironic that, even after we sign a document, we have to print our signature underneath it for clarity”, says Wallace.

Surely, though, in something as fundamental to education as writing, there must be scientific evidence that will settle this matter? Let’s dispatch the most obvious red herring straight away: you will not write faster in cursive than in print. Once you need to write fast (which you don’t at primary school), you’ll join up anyhow if and when that helps. I know this to be so, because I missed the school years in which cursive was ground into my peers, and yet I never suffered from lack of speed. But don’t take my word for it – research shows that there is no speed advantage to cursive [1].

Are there any other advantages, then? Champions of cursive will always unearth tenuous arguments from dusty corners of the literature. Cursive makes it easier to learn how to write words; in cursive, b and d are not confused, and children don’t write backwards letters; the blending of sounds is made more apparent by the joining of letters; cursive helps the left-handed. None of these claims counts for very much. (There is equal reason, for example, to think that the continuous movement of the pen from left to right makes cursive especially hard for left-handers.) On the merits of learning cursive versus manuscript, Steve Graham, a leading expert in writing development at Arizona State University, avers that “I don't think the research suggests an advantage for one over the other.”

A survey in the US in 1960 found that the decision to teach cursive in elementary schools was “based mainly on tradition and wide usage, not on research findings” [2]. One school director said that public expectancy and teachers’ training were the main reasons, and that “we doubt that there is any significant advantage in cursive writing.” According to Wallace, nothing has changed. “The reasons to reject cursive handwriting as a formal part of the curriculum far outweigh the reasons to keep it”, he says.

It’s not necessarily cursive per se that’s the problem, but the practice of teaching children two different systems, perhaps in the space of so many years, without good reason. Research seems to show that it may not much matter how children learn to write, so long as it is consistent. Wallace argues that any style will do if it is “flexible enough to be perceived as similar to printed text and simple enough to last through the school years” [3].

Were there to be a choice between cursive and manuscript, one can’t help wondering why we would demand that five-year-olds master all those curlicues and tails, and why we would want to make them form letters so different from those in their reading books. But that’s a smaller matter than forcing them to struggle though one of their hardest early-learning tasks twice, with two different sets of rules, apparently because of nothing more than the arbitrary and tautological belief that only the kind of writing you had to (re)learn can be ‘grown-up’ and ‘beautiful’. After all, what’s the point of conducting research on educational methods if in the end you’re going to say “But this is how we’ve always done it”?

References
1. S. Graham et al., J. Educ. Res. 91(5), 290 (1998).
2. P. J. Groff, Elementary School J. 61(2), 97 (1960).
3. R. R. Wallace & J. H. Schomer, Education 114(3) (1994).

7 comments:

Aaron Wolf said...

Fascinating and in line with what I've always thought. I went through the cursive system as a student but it never made sense to me and I really don't use it.

However, as an adult and now a teach myself (of music, not of handwriting, but still, I'm conscious of the learning process), I have come to this conclusion:

The problem with handwriting education isn't cursive vs print script. The problem is the entire idea of copying every detail of letters. Letters are not these exact shapes with rigid specifications. They are underspecified objects. The have certain necessary and sufficient conditions and the rest of the details are variable nuance.

Students shouldn't learn to write "a" a certain way. Instead, they should learn that the letter has certain features and then should be exposed to as many variations as possible, including cursive perhaps. The brain's natural statistical learning will show them what are the identifying features of each letter and where they can otherwise be flexible, efficient at times, creative and expressive at other times.

JimmyGiro said...

"I know this to be so, because I missed the school years in which cursive was ground into my peers, and yet I never suffered from lack of speed."

So why were you bumped up two years at such an early age? Were you ever told?

Bev said...

I can give you a ton of reasons to teach cursive, and none of them have to do with, because that is what we have always done it that way. The most important reason is that it has been shown scientifically that being able to write cursively helps in reading and writing skills. Through MRI scans they have shown that the same area of the brain that we use in reading and writing is the area we use for cursive writing, BUT not printing or typing. A research project in 2009, done in Quebec showed that those students that learned cursive did better over the year then those that only learn to print - all grade 2 students, and the mentally challenged students were not included in the study. Do we need to teach cursive - YES!!!

Bev said...

I can give you a ton of reasons to teach cursive, and none of them have to do with, because that is what we have always done it that way. The most important reason is that it has been shown scientifically that being able to write cursively helps in reading and writing skills. Through MRI scans they have shown that the same area of the brain that we use in reading and writing is the area we use for cursive writing, BUT not printing or typing. A research project in 2009, done in Quebec showed that those students that learned cursive did better over the year then those that only learn to print - all grade 2 students, and the mentally challenged students were not included in the study. Do we need to teach cursive - YES!!!

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Philip Ball said...

Bev,
I already have a ton of reasons why to teach cursive. My question is whether any of them stand up to scrutiny. The most common one - speed - does not. The two language experts I consulted don't think so either. Another popular one - that without cursive kids won't be able to read historical documents - is so absurd that you have to figure there is another agenda here. The argument you give about MRI, on the other hand, sounds well worth looking into, and I wish you'd given a reference - I've not been able to find it. However, two points:
(1) I have spoken to people who use MRI to study the brain during reading and writing, about specifically this issue, and was given no such indication by them.
(2) So (if you're right) until 2009 there was no scientific evidence for why cursive is better? So why, then, have we been so insistent for so long on teaching it? Doesn't that speak volumes in itself?

Bev Ascah said...

I don't need to have the logic of anything stand up to scrutiny, once I have done the research. When you know that what you are doing is right, and you have the proof, the doubters do not matter. When the majority of the world is still doing it - then maybe we are the ones that are wrong.