Friday, July 05, 2013

More on cursive

Only when clearing out my old magazines did I notice another comment in Prospect (May issue) on my article on cursive writing. There Katy Peters says:

“[Cursive] encourages children to allow their writing to follow the flow of thought more easily… My children [who were taught the usual print and cursive] have not been taught two different systems of writing; they have been taught a single method that allows them to commit thoughts to paper.”

So cursive helps a child’s train of thought to flow better than does print? I can see the logic in that: joined up writing leads to joined up thinking, right? But, Ms Peters, what about the fact that children find spelling harder with cursive because they find it more difficult to keep track of words as being composed of a discrete sequence of letters?

How do I know that’s the case, you ask? Well, I don’t. I just made it up. But it sounds kind of plausible, doesn’t it, so I figure it is on a par with Ms Peters’ view. I should say that, because Prospect letters are kept short and don’t allow references, I can’t entirely rule out the possibility that Ms Peters is quoting the findings of an academic study. But somehow I strongly doubt that. If you want to allude to actual research but aren’t permitted the citation itself, you can do that, as I did in my original piece (though that didn’t stop some from asking why there were no references). There’s no sign that Ms Peters did so. She’s simply saying something that sounds like it might be true.

What is patently untrue is that her children were taught “a single method” of writing. No, they really weren’t. It was abundantly evident to me that my daughter was very clearly being taught two systems – as she too knew very well, stating explicitly when she was choosing to use one and when the other. Cursive was a method she had to learn afresh. So let’s not just make stuff up because we want to believe it.

In any event, I wasn’t saying that cursive is inherently absurd, but rather, that there’s no good evidence that it has any advantages (I reserve judgement in the case of some children with dyslexia). The responses to my article have been very revealing about the way folks reason on things about which they have strong views. They don’t really want to know what academic studies show, and if confronted with such studies, they find ways to ignore or dismiss them. No, people simply want to find arguments for holding on to their beliefs. It doesn’t matter if these arguments are patently absurd – when I told the audience at the Hay Festival how several people cited the “grandmother’s letters in the attic” argument, they laughed, reassuring me that this was as transparently facile as I’d always thought.

No, people prefer anecdote to scientific study. (“But cursive is quicker for me.” Well, big surprise – you stopped printing when you were six, because you were told it wasn’t “grown-up”, and so you’ve scarcely practiced it since.) This doesn’t mean that such folk are stupid; they’re simply behaving as we seem predisposed to do, which is not in an evidence-based way. I’m sure I regularly do this too.

This is one reason why scientists who insist that we must better inform the public on issues such as climate change and evolution are only getting half the point. Better information is good, but it isn’t necessarily going to win the day, because we are ingenious at finding arguments that support our preconceptions, and ignoring evidence that doesn’t. Which is why I must try to remain open to the possibility that there really is evidence out there for why teaching children to print and then to write in cursive is a sensible way to teach. I was hoping that, if it exists, my article would bring it out into the open. It hasn’t yet.

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