Patti Bacchus: Should kids still learn cursive writing?

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      I learned cursive writing with a red, curvy stick pen when I was in Grade 3, which was around 1970. We just called it writing in those days, as opposed to printing. Over the years, my handwriting has morphed into a functional mix of cursive, printing, and the Forkner shorthand I later learned in journalism school. I also learned to type in Grade 11, which was hands-down the most useful skill I learned in high school.

      I don’t handwrite or print a whole lot these days. Mostly I type on a keyboard, text with my thumbs, and, occasionally, dictate, using voice-to-text software. When I started journalism school in 1985, the instructor told us to put down our pens and write directly on our typewriter keyboards. That was a tough adjustment.

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      I’d completed a bachelor of arts degree with a political-science major by that point, and I had laboriously handwritten drafts of many long essays before staying up all night, typing out final copies to hand in. I went through a lot of Wite-Out (sometimes known as "liquid paper"). Do kids today even know what that is?

      Now many—if not most—students are more comfortable on a keyboard—whether they’re typing in two-handed old-school fashion or with their thumbs—than they are writing or printing by hand. Does it matter? Probably not.

      Some kids and young adults I know don’t know how to address an envelope or write a cheque. Why should they if they rarely need to? I never learned to use a slide rule and I’m coping just fine. At least I’m pretty sure I am.

      The case for cursive

      I hear arguments in favour of making sure kids learn cursive writing at school, like they need to know how to sign their name or read letters from their grandmothers (actually, I’d bet most grandmas these days communicate by FaceTime and text). Some cite research—which others debunk—that learning cursive handwriting improves fine motor skills, memory, dexterity, and reinforces learning of the alphabet.

      Others argue that’s once you’ve mastered it, cursive is faster and more efficient than printing is by hand. Some fear if it becomes a lost art, people won’t be able to read and learn from old documents.

      Is teaching cursive a colossal waste of time?

      Teachers have a lot to cover in their limited classroom time and have to prioritize what will have the most value for students. B.C.’s provincial school curriculum doesn’t specifically include cursive writing. Grade 2 students are supposed to learn to print legibly, and provincial curriculum documents say Grade 3 students should have “legible handwriting”, without being specific about that being cursive writing.

      My understanding is that B.C. teachers have the professional autonomy to decide whether or not to teach cursive writing formally, although it sounds like lots of them still do as a means to build fine motor skills or as a language exercise.

      If you’re a parent, it means that if your kids attend a B.C. public school, they may or may not learn cursive writing, although they will learn how to print by hand, at the very least. When I was a school trustee, I came across more than a few parents who were shocked that cursive was no longer mandatory and who insisted their kids needed to learn it.

      If teachers find teaching cursive too time-consuming, or if it’s frustrating for some kids to master, they may decide classroom hours are better spent on things like learning to decode text, learning to think critically, coding computers, learning how government works, and how to separate fake news from the real thing.

      The arguments for making cursive-writing instruction mandatory strike me as nostalgia based, from a time when learning neat handwriting was an integral component of a well-rounded education. Now we live in a world with cheap handwriting-recognition apps and a powerful computer with a keyboard in pretty much everyone’s pocket or purse. Teachers are tasked with educating students to live in a fast-changing world in which cursive handwriting may be soon seen as a lost art or secret code used primarily by old people.

      Striking a balance

      Many teachers are still teaching cursive writing, knowing some students will grasp it and find it useful and enjoyable, as is the case for many other skills they teach. For those who find it a frustrating struggle, they can move on and focus on other things they find more interesting or useful.

      The jury is out, it seems, in terms of research on how cursive writing—as opposed to printing, drawing, or other fine-motor activities—affects learning and brain development. Others point to students spending too much time on screens in their early years and not enough time with crayons, pencils, and paintbrushes for a perceived decline in fine-motor abilities. If anything, we should probably be more worried about that than about whether little Abigail and Mason know how to connect a capital H with an A in cursive.

      Some adults of my vintage tell me that although they learned cursive as kids, they don’t use it much anymore or, like me, use some sort of a printing-and-cursive hybrid.

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      I find myself writing fewer cheques than I used to, as I switched to automatic withdrawals for regular bills and e-transfers for others. I rarely send handwritten letters, although I still keep a drawer full of thank-you cards, envelopes, and stamps. These days, unfortunately, I also keep a stack of sympathy cards on hand because the older you get, the more often people seem to die. I usually print in those however, as I fear people won’t be able to read my cursive writing.

      I love the idea of students enjoying cursive and wanting to learn it as a skill, just as some enjoy calligraphy or others might learn engraving. I also respect that teachers have to make choices about how to use their class time, and I hope parents respect those decisions and don’t stamp their feet demanding their kids learn a skill that is clearly becoming obsolete and unnecessary for success.

      I’d love to hear what current students in the K-12 think. Were you taught to learn cursive writing? If not, do you wish you had been? If so, was it worth it? Do you use it? Drop me a line at bacchuseducation@gmail.com.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.

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