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October 11, 2006


This Washington Post lament over the decline of cursive instruction aside, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a subject nearly as useless as script writing. In elementary school, stylized penmanship was a big deal. By high school, the teachers had asked that I stopped using it because it was harder to read. Glad I learned that. And while some cognitive scientists are arguing that kids who write in cursive show increased aptitude for long, complex essays, I'd like to see some studies (which there may well be -- I just haven't seen any) that disaggregate script from other factors like race, income, and ability that make a kid more likely to learn and write in cursive. Correlation, causation, and all that.

In any case, the decline of cursive seems inevitable and healthy. Class time is finite, and it's hard to make the case that much of the time that used to go to penmanship shouldn't now be spent on typing. And I say that as a student who can write in cursive but still hunt-and-pecks on the keyboard. I do it at 80-some words a minute, but still.

October 11, 2006 in Education | Permalink


Hunt and peck at 80wpm? Sometime I've got to see this.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 11, 2006 12:31:59 PM

I was taking a standardized test the other day, where we had to write this honor code in cursive on the test, to promise we weren't cheating or anything. I hadn't written cursive in years and the strain of focusing on every single letter nearly killed my wrist. Such a waste of time.

Anyway, I'm not even sure how necessary typing classes are. Most kids who will us computers will probably use instant messengers and lots of email, which teaches blazingly fast typing speed far better than any in classroom instruction.

Posted by: Tony v | Oct 11, 2006 12:36:31 PM

I guess English Literature also should be on the wane as it has little to do with everyday living.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 11, 2006 12:48:54 PM

non-sequitur, Fred. How do you feel about the decline of shorthand?

These days, I reserve cursive for personal letters and greeting cards. Truthfully, I'm doing a lot less letter writing now than I used to since, like many of us, I tend to keep in touch with friends over e-mail.

Posted by: Constantine | Oct 11, 2006 12:53:51 PM

Neil: You do -- I routinely get people coming up to comment on it after conferences and so forth. Itg's apparently a sight to see.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 11, 2006 1:04:16 PM

80 wpm!!! hunt and peck? Good lord!

typing will soon be a thing of the past as well. Voice recognition will be used all over the place in about 5 years. However, the little dance of the fingers is pretty fun - but some people literally never type so teaching it so everyone would be as useful as teaching everyone cursive.


Posted by: mickslam | Oct 11, 2006 1:06:19 PM

I am not a traditional touch-typist but my two-finger typing skills are mad fast. Probably not 80 WPM but definitely above average. I blame it on IRC.

I have to go back and spell check the heck out of everything, though, so possibly typing slower and getting it right the first time would be better. It's how I work, though, and after all this time I'm not likely to change my habits.

Posted by: fiat lux | Oct 11, 2006 1:10:07 PM

I think the decline of cursive is sad from an aesthetic perspective--and I say this as someone who, today, couldn't write cursive if my life depended on it. (Actually, I probably could, but it would be seriously ugly.)

As a practical matter, I agree that classroom time is limited, and cursive probably doesn't make the cut. That said, I think Fred has a point--practicality shouldn't be the only consideration. Art and music, for example, which are mostly gone from schools due to budget cuts, have tremendous benefits that are not directly related to any practical applicability.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Oct 11, 2006 1:13:01 PM

Yes, but literature/art/music have (the theory goes) intrinsic value, whereas typing/cursive is, the Wapo jeremiad about authenticity aside, essentially a functional skill.

Posted by: djw | Oct 11, 2006 1:20:58 PM

I thought Josh Marshall's take on the issue - that knowing cursive makes deciphering historical documents easier - was interesting. It's also the only one that I find to be valid. When class time is getting cut for art, music, and other areas, I find it difficult to hold up "learning cursive" as something to fight over. The only purpose that cursive has in my life now is to be able to make a legal signature - other than that all of my document work is either printed or typed, and has been since I was in High School and they stopped requiring us to write things out in cursive and started encouraging us to use a typewriter or a word processor whenever possible.

We still need cursive for signatures, though, since block printing is even easier to fake than handwriting. I imagine cursive will get taught for that purpose for a long time to come.

Posted by: NonyNony | Oct 11, 2006 1:30:07 PM

After finishing school, how much actual handwriting do people do these days?

I go out of my way to avoid the chore of writing. Then, due to lack of practice, my hand seems to forget how to form certain characters. Early onset arthritis (thanks, mom) and an annoyingly long last name (thanks, dad) combine to make my signature worse than any doctor's.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 11, 2006 1:40:46 PM

I've never used cursive. Even in grade school, unless the assignment was to practice cursive, I used printing. Including my signature, which would have been no easier to forge than the cursive equivalent. (Now my signature is a cross between printing and indefinite scrawl.)

But it's important to know cursive. If you can't read it, you'll be unable to read some useful things, not only historical. Like some letters and notes. Not everyone communicates by Blackberry.

I agree with Tim about the aesthetic value. Some cursive writing is quite beautiful.

I've worried that some kids will just stop writing in any form, and lose the ability to read and write sans keyboard/typepad/screen.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 11, 2006 1:57:00 PM

Ezra, I think you're tragically wrong on this issue. Numerous studies have demonstrated not merely correlation, but causation, of higher intellect and living standards with not just cursive writing, but also butter-churning, buggy-repairing, horse-shoeing, wig-powdering, and slave-auctioning.

Posted by: The Confidence Man | Oct 11, 2006 2:02:34 PM

Fred - I look forward to your essay on reversing tax givaways and loopholes - as well as other methods - to help properly fund the public school system on federal and local levels - so children can have comprehensive literature, fine arts, music and fitness programs re-introduced into the curriculum.

Posted by: Gramps | Oct 11, 2006 2:05:32 PM

So much computer triumphalism here. Obviously there's no worth to outdated things.

For what it's worth, I do handwrite in cursive, typically for an hour and a half a day. I am a very fast touch-typist, and when I type I can reach the end of a thought very quickly; writing by hand slows me down so that by the time I reach the end of a sentence, my mind has already begun to formulate the next. I think it also forces me into a sparer style, which I end up having to correct by expanding on revision. Many other writers, by contrast, describe revision as mainly a cutting process. Finally, when I am stuck I use free writing to overcome problems, and I can't imagine doing that on a computer.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Oct 11, 2006 2:08:50 PM

I actually won a penmanship contest in 6th grade. My cursive writing is beautiful, and I use it frequently.

However, I won't put up a fight to keep it on the curriculum. I think it's a good thing to learn, but most of these kids will never need to use it, aside from their signatures. And most people's signatures aren't even cursive, just scribbles.

Posted by: maurinsky | Oct 11, 2006 2:35:20 PM

My cursive, while always nothing to write home about, died when I went to college and had to start taking notes at light speed. I have since developed a hybrid cursive/print that has become my handwriting all the time (and its VERY bad). However, I still say to this day, the most valueable class I ever took in highschool was "keyboarding". If you can type that fast with 2 fingers, imagine if you actually knew how to type. Invaluable in so many ways. I suspect many young kids today will never learn to type correctly as they start so young on the computer that they'd have to teach typing in elementary school to get it to stick.

Posted by: Katinula | Oct 11, 2006 2:39:13 PM

Fred - I look forward to your essay on reversing tax givaways and loopholes - as well as other methods - to help properly fund the public school system on federal and local levels - so children can have comprehensive literature, fine arts, music and fitness programs re-introduced into the curriculum.

All but the federal funding which should be outlawed. The truth is, we have the funds we need now to accomplish this. They are simply mis-spent.

It must be amazing to you that all of these programs were there until the last couple of decades and yet there was no "school financial crisis" to speak of.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 11, 2006 2:55:26 PM

I stopped using cursive by college. My 15 year old brother by high school. I have some pretty bad handwriting. He has really bad handwriting. Its my opinion that cursive helps, among other things I'm sure, writing in general. I doubt writing will die in the future. I'm a fairly good typer, but I don't think my life will be 100% communicated, in written form, through a commputer. At least I hope not. The Arts (cursive, music, art, etc.) should not be removed from our schools.

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 11, 2006 3:14:40 PM

Cursive is worthless. I only use it to sign my name. Forcing little kids to learn it is a waste of time. I'm not going to say no one should ever use it, but since most people use block lettering to write anything (if they write at all), seems to me that's sufficient.

Not gonna lead the charge to get rid of typing, though. People still gotta type. And a touch typing class is well worth the time and effort. It's one of the few skills I learned in high school that I still use.

Posted by: LL | Oct 11, 2006 4:07:26 PM

I don't see why teaching cursive should be a priority in schools. My own writing is a strange cursive-printing hybrid developed in high school and college, but I think typing is a much more important skill to teach (and I disagree that voice recognition software will be good enough in 5 years.)

That being said, when I was in college I finally got a laptop, and tried using it to take notes in class. It didn't work at all. I type very fast, and I found myself actually typing up every word the teacher said, and reproducing everything on the board, rather than paying attention and only taking note of the highlights, and for some reason, I couldn't get myself to do that with the computer. So I went back to pen and paper, but you hardly need cursive for that.

Posted by: Stacy | Oct 11, 2006 5:07:05 PM

I don't have any aesthetic preference for cursive, but surely it's quicker than printing. That won't matter if you're typing or using shorthand, but in an exam context it matters a lot. I'm a slow writer, printing or cursive, and I found it was my limiting factor in exams - I had to structure my essays knowing that I'd only be physically able to write about 1,000 words an hour at most. If I had to print them I'd be limited to 750 words or so.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Oct 11, 2006 5:09:26 PM

I'm actually sorry that my cursive went to the dogs when I started computing so much. I really like to write hand-written thank you, get well and sympathy notes and my script is just terrible. When I see what it looked like 20 years ago, I feel badly. On the other hand, the writing bump I've had on my middle finger since elementary school (from pressing the pen or pencil so hard) is finally gone.

Posted by: TalkLeft | Oct 11, 2006 5:29:19 PM

As the father of an 8 year old son, I completely agree. He spends much time trying to get his cursive just right - while his time would be better spent on getting his composition just right.

We have started him using a laptop to compose homework essays and he works three times faster at much better quality - BTW we turn off spell checking, so perhaps we are still old fogies after all.

Posted by: George | Oct 11, 2006 5:50:39 PM

Just had this thought, oddly. We can switch to a cursive font on the word processor...

Posted by: george | Oct 11, 2006 5:52:40 PM

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