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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