Putting Cursive on the Chopping Block

Putting Cursive on the Chopping Block

The inclusion of cursive handwriting within a school’s curriculum has been debated for a while now. The lovely people over at PediaStaff forwarded me a recent article from the New York Times debating the need to teach cursive ( Is Cursive Dead? ) and asked what my stance was on the subject.

The piece in the New York Times offers four different opinions from various professionals. (Always exciting when they actually include an OT in the discussion!) Before reading the article, my automatic response has always been yes, of course children should be taught cursive. However, after reading and analyzing the different opinions, my stance isn’t so black and white. (Darn you, New York Times, for making me think!)

Why Cursive Matters

Ok, so why is my knee jerk response as an OT to say, yes, you should teach cursive?  In the simplest of terms – because it promotes fine motor and visual motor skill development.

Most OT’s look at cursive as more than just a fancy script. We aren’t pushing for the font of olden-times, we simply see an activity that promotes skills that many children are lacking. So if there is an opportunity to participate in a task that will be beneficial to overall development, we are all for it!

In her opinion piece, Suzanne Baruch Anderson (an occupational therapist) mentions that cursive promotes brain development as well as synapses across the left/right hemispheres of the brain. I haven’t personally read the research on that, so it is hard for me to offer an objective opinion.

However, I am on board with the point of writing speed and efficiency. Now, when I was in school, taking notes by hand, a cursive/print hybrid situation helped me out quite a bit. Although most would argue that kids just take notes on their computer now, so my argument might be shot down.

I think the information from the College Board stating that students who wrote in cursive scored slightly higher on the SAT than those who printed is quite interesting. While Suzanne mentions that some experts attribute this to efficient handwriting that allows for a focus on content, I have my own thoughts.

What about first impressions of someone’s handwriting? I feel that people tend to make snap judgements about a person’s intelligence based solely on their handwriting. Would it be such a stretch to assume that the students writing in cursive receive higher scores based on subjective assumptions of their fancy writing? Just something to think about.

On a different note, sometimes cursive is simply the better choice for a child in a clinical sense. When I work with children with difficulties in visual-spatial relationships, they may benefit from trying a different script. When the letters are connected in cursive, the children don’t have as much of an issue with inconsistent spacing between letters and words. This in itself can help improve their overall legibility.

I also feel that we should all have some sort of signature. Is my signature a perfect example of cursive strokes? Of course not! But it does offer some sort of minimal protection when it comes to someone forging your name.

Why Learning Cursive Isn’t Worth the Trouble

The most ridiculous point made in these articles is that children should be taught cursive because it is beautiful. To teach cursive because it’s pretty…that’s no reason at all. I think pictures of rainbows are pretty, should everyone be taught how to make those?

However, Jimmy Bryant (an archivist) also points out the cultural traditions of cursive. Many historical documents are written in cursive, plus don’t forget all those letters from your grandparents. But again, does that mean we should still be actively teaching it? I don’t know that I see the rationale for it based on that alone. I do agree with Kate Gladstone’s point that every child should be taught to read cursive. Minimal instruction can unlock the ability to decipher many historical documents. That’s a no-brainer for me.

Now, the biggest reason I realize that cursive might not make the cut – time constraints in school. Morgan Polikoff (an assistant professor of education) makes an excellent point that teachers are stretched thin as they try to squeeze their curriculum within the school year. I have teacher friends that have looked at me and said, “I barely have the time to teach the children to print.” I see so many children in my office for OT because they didn’t quite figure out how to form the letter “A” in that one day of instruction, and quickly fell behind.

So, with that said, are there better things to spend the child’s time working on? Perhaps learning a foreign language? Don’t we all have terrible math skills in this country? When you start to think of it that way, should we really be teaching children a whole second way to write, when they struggle with other skill areas of great importance? It’s a tough call.

The Best Compromise?

In an ideal world, yes,  children would learn cursive. I say that even though I know it won’t be used much in their adulthood, but the fine motor/visual motor practice is worthwhile.

However, since we don’t live in an ideal world, I suppose I have to compromise. First and foremost, every child should know how to read cursive. There is no wiggle room for me on this one. What a sad form of illiteracy if a child can’t read an important document, or heaven forbid, what about a fancy wedding invitation?

I think children should at least be given an introduction to cursive and learn a cursive signature. Even if they only get a little practice, they can at least get an understanding of the letter formations. In some schools with more flexibility, they could even offer cursive as an elective course. (I mean, come on, they take the time to teach some kids Latin…)

Clinically, I think some children might need to learn cursive as an alternative to print. In that situation, they might require a referral to an OT for private instruction. I have seen the incredible benefits of writing in cursive for some children; however, it might be the exception more than the rule.

With all that said, I can definitely understand both sides of the argument. But comparing cursive to the abacus and slide rule, as Morgan Polikoff states? That might be a bit dramatic. Learning cursive might not be the most practical use of instruction time, but I strongly believe that there are benefits to learning this archaic script.


About TheAnonymousOT

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
This entry was posted in Lessons Learned, Occupational Therapy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Putting Cursive on the Chopping Block

  1. georgeawebb says:

    i definitely need to work on my cursive.. mine is horrible lol .. great post

  2. Pingback: OT Corner: The Debate About Cursive – Three PediaStaff OT Columnists Weigh In

  3. kategladstone says:

    I commend you, Anonymous OT, for having the courage to speak out against the cult of worshiping cursive. Let’s get in touch and speak out together!

  4. You quoted the OT who contributed to the NYT piece, “cursive promotes brain development as well as synapses across the left/right hemispheres of the brain.” This is critical because NO research has been done that proves the method commonly known as “cursive” is the contributor. A myth has circulated and should be corrected. Research has been done that determines the cognitive advantage of writing by hand rather than just keyboarding. I would be pleased to refer to that research upon request.

    As to the opinion of the archivist, he must archive American documents only, as there are many important documents that predate the United States, and they are written in a variety of hands, other than copperplate derivatives (Spencerian, Palmer et al).

  5. For me, one of the sadder things about the handwriting debate has been hearing from legislators, teachers, and others who’ve privately told me such things as these: “We’re actually quite aware that the research we mention isn’t supporting cursive, and that it needs to be misquoted in order to create the needed support. As we see it, writing in cursive is so important that _every_ possible means must be used to make sure that it is continued. If it takes sacrificing the accuracy of the research, in order to serve a purpose, then this should be done — because this may be the only way that writing in cursive can be saved.”

    Some of those opinions were voiced to me after the appearance of the following news articles nd other reports allowed certain glimpses into the “behind the scenes” world of factors and contacts that influence decisions on handwriting:

    “Cursive writing bill linked to for-profit company” —
    http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2013/04/24/cursive-writing-bill-linked-to-zaner-bloser/ [NOTE: this was duplicated in one of the tinyURLs, so I have deleted that tinyURL — or, rather, its expansion — below]

    “Senate approves cursive instruction” —

    “About that cursive bill” —
    [NOTE: this was duplicated in one of the tinyURLs, so I have deleted that tinyURL — or, rather, its expansion — below]

    “Cursive, Foiled Again?” —

    “Handwriting Expert to NC and SC: Don’t mandate cursive writing” —

    “Hilarious! Cursive writing: Follow the money” —

    “Representative Pat Hurley made up facts to bolster her false claims about cursive writing” —

    “Back to basics: time to brush up on your cursive” —
    [this is not the exposé proper, but a general background article that was quickly
    followed up by the other NC POLICY WATCH exposé material]

    “Cursive writing bill passes Senate education committee” —

    I wonder what others here may think about the observations an events described therein.

  6. kategladstone says:

    Re reading cursive — over the past few year or so, I’ve worked with the educational software designer WebTeamCorp to create a how-to-read-cursive iPad app called READ CURSIVE — http://appstore.com/readcursive — it’s out now, it’s free (two optional in-app purchases enable additional practice areas), and it’s also coming soon to other platforms.

  7. kategladstone says:

    Re signatures and cursive — What about signatures? Is cursive needed there? Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, then verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest: including the printed ones. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.
    The individuality of print-style (or other non-cursive style) writings is further shown by this: six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the writing on an unsigned assignment) which of her 25 or 30 students wrote it.

    There’s also this to consider: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (On this, I could quote legal sources — and lawyers — but that would take more room than a letter permits. So don’t take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)


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