Tegan Tuesday: Cursed without cursive?

Every couple of weeks I’ll see yet another article bemoaning the state of education because darn kids and their darn texting aren’t learning cursive! Occasionally the article will appeal to parents and educators from a pedagogical point of view: this argument is about how people remember things differently when typed or when handwritten, and, obviously, cursive is the fastest writing so it should be used. Sometimes the argument is an appeal to preservation and history: kids can’t read non-typed documents oh no! The rare article sticks to complaining about Kids These Days and how they need to learn cursive just because. Because I had to. Because they hate it. Because they’re on their phones too much. Just, because. Depending on how frothing at the mouth the author of the article is, I either laugh or roll my eyes at every single one. Because each argument is nonsense.

Those who argue that memory is aided by the process of writing by hand have flawed methodology in their research. The question is not ‘which is better, typing or handwriting data?’ but rather, ‘does a person learn better when using the data preservation method they were trained on?’ Up until extremely recently, the predominant method of data recording was by hand. Even the coding that took the men to the moon was done by hand, because processing power was expensive and because the human computers had trained that way. As a millenial, I learned to take notes and write essays by hand. This means that my first training was in manual recording and it is my default. Any time I type I am surrounded by paper with hand-scrawled notes and notebooks for additional commenting. I often do essay planning or rough drafts longhand and my processing speed is different for handwriting and typing. I am a touch typist, so when I have a script to follow, I have a fairly swift typing speed. When pulling from thoughts, there are stops and starts and stuttering of my keyboard as I think slower than I type. Whereas by hand? I rarely pause because my thoughts move at a speed related to my hand speed. This combines with my visual learning style to mean that writing and seeing a handwritten note is much stickier, mentally, than a typed comment. Most of my typing rarely sticks in my thoughts at all — it’s more dictation, even when it comes from my own brain.

Contrast this with Gen Z who have been typing since they were small and have had computers in the classroom their whole lives. Many of them barely have functional handwriting at all, because typing has been their default for decades. But they are the first generation to have this pedagogical change, and thus the first to possibly truly answer the research question mentioned above about how people best learn. Any research prior to the past few years has, naturally, been conducted on people who learned handwriting first. Surprise! They remember details best when handwritten. But how does this hold up when confronted with students who learned typing first? I suspect that Gen Z thinks through their fingers on a keyboard the same way that I think with a pen in my hand. Anecdotally, I dated someone with dysgraphia for a number of years, and their brain could not actually form the pathways to build the muscle memory to write. They were gifted a typewriter for Christmas when they were 7 and never looked back. This person, naturally, thought best through a keyboard where writing by hand was an exercise in frustration.

The other argument worth addressing about cursive — or its lack — is its value to history. If children aren’t taught cursive, they won’t be able to read texts from the past! Well, I’m sorry to say that that has always been the case. Scripts have always been regionally- and temporally-based, and it is difficult to read ones outside of your own time and area. Heck, I sometimes can’t read the handwriting of the person next to me and I have to ask what a word is! Learning cursive allows for more fonts to be pre-loaded into mental storage but Spencerian is different from Secretary Hand  which is different from Palmer Method or Chancery or Sütterlin. A postdoc application that I read once included the detail that because the scholar was already familiar with the 19th century composer’s handwriting, they could actually read their diaries in all of its historical German shorthand glory. Because that’s the other thing about historical writings: the format and actual text differs from situation to situation. The go-to examples of this are diaries which often have abbreviated phrasing and spellings that are individual decisions, or handwritten recipes which have standard abbreviations that might vary from culture to culture and by time period. Where my grandmother would write “van,” or my mother would write “1 t van,” I would be more likely to write “1 tsp vanilla” — and we would all mean the same thing. But let’s take a look at an example from my research.

This is the inside page of a dictionary published in 1749. In the second inscription, (“The Gift of Anna Maria Botterell, to Bridgett Hawkins, on June the 24th 1778”) there’s an 18th century handwriting convention of spelling ‘the’ as ‘ye’ with the ‘e’ a superscript above the ‘y’. This is an artefact from when the English language included the letter ‘thorn’ and it stuck around as a shorthand in words like ‘the’ for centuries. But also look at the way Anna Maria Botterell writes ‘Hawkins’ compared to Bridgett (‘B’) Hawkins, the next Hawkins who’s first name or initial I cannot parse, or Maria Bratt Hawkins. I only know that Maria Bratt’s married name is Hawkins because of its proximity to all of the other names — and that’s nothing on how differently she wrote her location (‘Edgbaston’) from the previous person! The first writer, Sarah Botterell, has a clear difference in script between her handwriting and Anna Maria’s, although both are fairly clear to read. These five people were literate, valued book-learning (this is inside of a dictionary that remained in use for a century after publication), and even in an inscription had varying levels of legibility. How much less legible would their diaries or a note to the grocer be!

When considering the historical handwriting question, I am reminded of a dilemma from other historical pursuits. Often people living in historical homes are interested in returning the house to its previous life and spend hours searching for paint chips or evidence of wallpaper. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the previous owners of the house had taste! Just because the wall used to be lime green does not mean that you need to paint it lime green in order to “restore” the building to some form of former glory. And just as our ancestors may not have had good taste, they might have had bad handwriting. A child learning cursive only gains an extra mental font — it does not guarantee ease of handwriting decipherment.

The skill I wish schools actually taught? Proper typing. When I learned cursive, there was a great deal of emphasis on proper hand shape and how to best hold a pen. Students are typing more than ever, and there are equally more cases of repetitive stress injuries than ever before and at younger and younger ages. Please teach your kids how to hold their hands properly! We only get one set of them and trashing them with repeated use in awkward and terrible positions from a young age does no one any good. But cursive? Eh, I could take or leave it. The kids who are interested in it will find their own way (I know a lot of people who are interested in calligraphy and paleography) and rather than chivvy along a group of recalcitrant children that time could be better spent on more productive things like preventing injurious typing behavior.

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  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    and, obviously, cursive is the fastest writing so it should be used.

    Once we had been taught cursive, I drove teachers nuts because I took my notes in all-caps block printing. The reason? I could write print in all-caps faster than I could write illegibly in cursive. In high school, teachers insisted that all papers be either written in cursive or typed. The teachers were so happy when I learned to type.

    As to how I assimilate knowledge, I have always (and I mean as far back as I can remember (age 3(?))) remembered things seen in print (paper or copmuter screen) far better than I remember hand printing or writing. In high school, once I learned to type and had my own copmuter (a Texas Instruments TI-2 (I was the third kid in my high school to actually own a copmuter)), I, every knight, took my notes and transcribed them into a (very primitive) word processor (it didn’t even have spll check or grammar check like modern software (hell, even putting this into the message box activates the spellcheck)). By typing it out, in sentences and paragraphs, I remembered the lesson.

    Wife and I have discussed this. We both think it a shame that cursive is no longer being taught. But we also know that education should be both about abstract knowledge and problem solving as well as practical ‘life living’ things — writing cheques (no longer taught), shop class (my middle school shop classes included lots of household ‘how to fix this’ lessons — wiring a plug, changing a faucet washer — as well as the big projects, using a dictionary, using a card catalogue at the library, etc. Things that were useful back in the day but, save for the ‘how to fix this’ lessons in shop, not real useful anymore — my son has not written a cheque in better than a decade.

    We are both careful, though. Through my readings in history (and Wife listening to me go on and on and on and on (I used to talk to much, but I joined On-and-Onanon and am much better now)) I recognize the current ‘those damn kids’ and ‘why aren’t they teaching what I learned’ get recycled every generation. I have read letters from the 13th century (translated and transcribed) as deacons at the University of Paris complain about the musical tastes, the drinking, and the late hours of students. The letter also complains that the students aren’t being held to a high enough standard when it comes to Latin (not like it was in our day!). My parents’ generation thought my generation lazy. My own parents thought it absurd that schools no longer taught Greek and Latin. It goes on and on. Every generation.

    I view cursive as something that was useful, just as the Fraktur alphabets were useful. Things change.

    The skill I wish schools actually taught? Proper typing.

    Possibly the single most useful course I took in high school. Not only got me through all of my college papers, but also earned me quite a bit typing (and editing) other’s papers.

  2. springa73 says

    Doing a little research that involved reading (or trying to read) nineteenth century handwritten correspondence disabused me of the notion that long ago, everyone had perfect handwriting.

    I agree with pretty much everything in this post. I’m probably a little biased, since I was always awful at cursive handwriting. I was consistently at the bottom of my class when we were learning it when I was 7 and 8, and I pretty much dropped it entirely in favor of printing around age 13. The proverbial last straw for me was when I realized that I could not read a considerable portion of my own cursive writing. From then on it has been all printing for me, when I’m not typing. I do find that writing things down helps fix them in my memory, but as noted in the OP this probably works just as well with typing something when one is used to typing notes.

    Teaching children how to type both quickly and without gradually injuring their hands and wrists is definitely much more important in today’s world.

  3. Katydid says

    @2: are you, me? The consistent message I got when learning cursive in the early 1970s was how absolutely wretched I was at it. The word “atrocious” was used a lot. I was told I lacked fine-motor control or that I was “just lazy” or even on one occasion, “stupid”. Despite that, not once was I shown how to hold the pen.

    I discovered the typewriter at age 10 and realized my fine-motor control was just fine.

    My typing class in high school in 1980 was the best class I ever took. It was on a manual typewriter.

  4. springa73 says

    Katydid @3

    I was a little bit luckier – I don’t remember being called “stupid” or “lazy”, and I think at least one of my teachers did try to improve my pen-holding technique. Their training didn’t stick, though – part of the reason may have been that I do in fact have below-average motor control and coordination, to the degree that I had some physical therapy when I was a kid. Or maybe I was just not a good learner at that point.

    I also took typing in high school, about 10 years after you did. We learned on an electric typewriter, one of the last classes to do so before they switched to using computers.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    A friend of mine was such a smart kid that her elementary school decided to jump her up a year, so she went directly (iirc) from 3rd grade to 5th.

    Apparently nobody thought about how they taught cursive in 4th grade at that school, or that they required all assignments to be written in cursive in 5th grade and up – and that the teachers would not only give failing grades but get rude and nasty to students who wrote anything in block letters.

    It took her several months of begging to get “demoted” to 4th grade – and then a lot of extra work to catch up on her writing lessons after that.

  6. Dunc says

    I’ve changed from always taking notes by hand to typing – certainly I used to be able to write faster than I could type, but years of practice of typing (plus actually teaching myself to more-or-less touch type properly) combined with the degradation of my handwriting caused by high-speed note-taking in university means that I can now type at least as fast (on a decent keyboard anyway), and actually read the results afterwards. Add on the ubiquity and flexibility of modern note-taking software (hello OneNote!) and it’s definitely a winner for most cases. Not to mention the benefit of searchability!

    I would definitely second the suggestion that schools should teach proper typing. I work in IT, we all work at keyboards all day, but surprisingly few of us can actually type properly. I switched to using an ergonomic keyboard a couple of years back, so had to retrain myself a bit, and took the opportunity to at least try and do the job properly. It’s made a big difference to me.

    I’m glad I learned cursive, but only because I extremely lucky to have a particularly good primary school teacher who used handwriting lessons as an excuse for hours of off-curriculum rambling about all sorts of interesting things… Those were the best lessons of my entire education. But that’s obviously a very unusual experience.

  7. Katydid says

    My now-adult children only know enough cursive to sign their names, and neither of them an read cursive (for example, in a letter). The “Christian” schools in the area teach it but the public school spends very little time on it. I thought about that after reading this post yesterday. The big argument I’ve heard for learning it is “They can read the Constitution in the original form!” Is that actually something people do? The words are online for anyone who chooses to look.

    I also thought about springa73; if I did have issues with fine-motor control (I may have) at 7, it didn’t stop me from coloring and drawing. And if so, I caught up over time. Nobody even thought to test it because it was easier and more fun to shame me for something out of my control.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    I recently started to try to write in cursive, after almost 50 years of printing.
    It is sad.

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