Monday, August 29, 2005


As a graduate of K-8 Catholic education, my best subject when I was 13 was Penmanship. And I knew how to diagram a sentence like nobody's business. The nuns, fierce Franciscans, were all about handwriting, diagramming complex sentences, and teaching us alternatives to cussing. "When you feel upset, just say MICHIGAN!" suggested Sr. Mary Alexandra.

Every week in 7th grade, Sr. Alexandra would make us practice our handwriting. After 30 to 45 minutes of working on our cursive, she'd pick the three best examples and send them to Sr. Doreen, the principal, to have her judge the VERY best. I got chosen as one of the three often, along with Ya Lin Chu and Gregory Zenzina. Periodically, Sr. Doreen stuck the gold star on my sheaf.

From the moment I learned the Palmer Method in the second grade, I'd been "the one to watch" when it came to cursive. I had been writing for years -- loops and loops of jibberish -- but once I learned the actual letters, I could communicate things. More importantly, those beautiful letters felt so good to write. I practiced X over and over -- two sixes having sex, almost 69ing. Q was a mystery: why was it like a 2? Or a backwards L? Those things had nothing seemingly in common with one another.

Over the years, I spent hours trying out different ways to write letters cursively. When I noticed that a friend's G was impressively formed, I'd absorb what I liked about her G into my own G. I wrote lots of notes to my friends, not because I had so much to say but because I loved the act of writing them. Most of them were along the lines of "What's up?" Or "Do you like John DiGiovanni? He likes you."

In sixth grade, a little black cloud in a plaid uniform jumper, named Ya Lin Chu, joined our class. Oh, did she rain on my parade with her exotic and perfect penmanship! Ya Lin, just off the boat from Viet Nam, wrote in an inimitable style. Try as hard as I might, I could not mimic her script. Soon enough, the class thank-you notes to guest speakers were being hand-written by her, where before they'd been my domain, practically my birthright. I had real trouble containing my jealously and being nice to Ya Lin. But I did my best. After all, she was an immigrant who had just crossed the Pacific Ocean in a LIFEBOAT, for god's sake. I seethed and scribbled for hours at night, consciously judging whether I was as impressed by my own handwriting as I was by Ya Lin's. I was not. I'd been surpassed. I had to make peace with being one of the best handwriters in middle school instead of THE best.

Recently, I've been involved in a discussion about the relevance of learning cursive in elementary school. There are some people who argue that it's an unnecessary skill these days, given that most children are now learning keyboarding as early as fifth grade. Many people curse cursive because they were never good at it. Probably they felt weak in it because they were taught to learn it AFTER learning block printing, which is an unnatural order given the way the brain functions develop.

I've been reading a book called Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., and she has this to say about learning cursive:

"By age four or five children naturally love to 'write' stories -- very elaborate stories. They usually write in a pretend cursive style, because they are mimicking grown-up writing, and because they enjoy the natural rhythm and flow of it. This process is anchoring learning in a holistic way and could be an excellent point of departure for new learning....[An] unnatural challenge has to do with learning to print block letters as the first step in writing. Printing is a highly linear process that takes us away from the more continuous rhythmic flow of language, both as it is experienced in the mind and as it is expressed through the hand -- as in cursive script....At [five years old] children have to work very hard at printing since it defies the natural development of brain functions. After age seven, when the brain is developed enough to accommodate the discrete and linear operations necessary for printing, we then teach them cursive. It's a crazy game that only serves to maintain high stress levels in the child and leads to 'learned helplessness'" (Hannaford 84-85).

Maybe my excellent cursive skills have something to do with what David calls my "teacher attitude," by which he means not the fact that I am indeed a teacher, but rather that I have tendency to order him around and act like I always know what I'm talking about as well as more than he does. Maybe there's a connection. You know how teachers most often have good handwriting? Well maybe the reason they became teachers is BECAUSE they have good handwriting -- they have to help all those helpless people who never learned to master cursive.

Someone needs to do a study on this cursive/know-it-all temperment, stat.


KateGladstone said...

As a handwriting instruction/remediation specialist (who has serious bones to pick with printing AND with cursive), I'd like to put my two cents in.

Research shows that the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive. Highest-speed highest-legibility handwriters join some, not all, of the letters -- making just the easiest joins, and skipping the rest -- and use print-like rather than cursive-style forms for those letters that "disagree" between printing and cursive.

Since learning to read cursive takes an hour or less (I've taught five-year-olds to do it), and learning to write cursive takes a year or more, I do recommend that students learn how to read cursive for the sake of those who still write in cursive. But why require students to write in a style that the fastest and clearest handwriters avoid?

Kate Gladstone
handwriting instruction and remediation specialist
Founder, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
Director, the World Handwriting Contest

Unknown said...

I am an occupational therapist working with preschool to post-highschool students. Children in the U.S. are being short changed in the neglect of handwriting. Handwriting is a valuable cultural endeavor for much more than aesthetic reasons alone. My take on handwriting is this - requiring kindergarteners to write is silly; at least a third of them don't have the fine motor or attentional skills to do so with good form, and many of them develop very bad habits that are carried over throughout their life. The idea of teaching cursive prior to print may have merit. Print and cursive are crucial parts of any school's curriculum because of this: It provides a micro gymnasium for the body and mind. Even though writing a letter occurs in a very small space, it requires a complex integration of movement, pressure, and visual processing. Angular, straight, and circular movements are all sequenced in a specific order to imitate fairly complex visual images and motoric movements. This activity provides an organizing foundation for the central nervous system that other skills can be integrated with. The visual spatial and coordinative skills that develop with a highly structured handwriting curriculum provide a neural structure for organizing other kinds of information and skills. Research shows that students perform higher in all subject areas when they participate in a fully developed handwriting curriculum. Unfortunately, curriculums across the U.S. are so crammed with peripheral content and schools spend so much time doing and teaching things that families should be responsible for, many gradeschools do not have formal handwriting curriculums. The idea that handwriting is no longer necessary because of technology is incorrect. When I look at my parent's handwriting and then my grandparent's handwriting I can see the unfortunate cultural decline from a time when people took pride in their handwriting, and took the time to make it a beautiful thing. Maybe somehow this idea can be ushered back into modern society, but right now I don't see that happening.