The Debate About Cursive Script
There is a view developing in education circles that learning to write in cursive script is a waste of time.
Associate Professor Dr Misty Adoniou said in early 2015 in The Conversation, “The research doesn’t find any benefits for cursive writing.” She added the following, “Cursive writing is cute, and nice, and decorative if you’ve got a leaning towards wanting to do it … just like you might like to learn to crochet or knit.”
Dr Adoniou’s statement that “research doesn’t find any benefits for cursive writing” means what? That there are no benefits compared with hand-printing? No benefits compared with tapping into a keyboard? Does she mean that we should teach printing and continue to print – just skip the handwriting altogether? Her message is unclear. Further, Dr Adoniou uses emotive metaphors to assert a viewpoint that writing in script is anachronistic and irrelevant to the modern world. Such a broad and sweeping claim!
Dr Therese Keane of Swinburne University was quoted in the same article in The Conversation. “Parents … [are concerned] that their sons or daughters may not have the right training to sit there and write clearly and accurately, and also under time pressure. And so the parents are quite concerned that their kids are going to be disadvantaged because they can’t write in those conditions, because … they’re used to typing.”
Keyboarding has its risks and problems.
As one who has been keyboarding at 80 wpm (words per minute) for decades, I consider myself very competent in both keyboarding and hand-writing. After fiddling with upper-case, font-size, formatting and so on, I know I could write this blog equally well by hand. Using a keyboard has its own disadvantages, including RSI (repetitive strain injury). It is my opinion that neither these concerned parents nor the academics are fully aware of the problems of constant keyboarding. To add to this, these young people cannot touch-type anyway.
It seems to me that Dr Keane is responding to parental anxiety that has not been thought through. If most students are used to typing, then their handwriting skills must be on a par with keyboarding. No child is disadvantaged. It is simply one of a pretty long list of parental concerns. This one is about their children getting an edge on other ‘competitors’ on the home run to the finishing line in Year 12 exams.
Dr Adoniou points out that NAPLAN tests are about to go online and that this will “level the playing field”. Moving online is a logical step and is neither here nor there when it comes to teaching handwriting.
So what are these academics really taking issue with?
Dr Nicola Yelland, Professor of Education at Victoria University, writes, “…spending school time on learning cursive, via careful copying of the letters and patterns… So when we teach kids particular downstrokes and where to start their letters, it’s really based on how you had to use the technology of a fountain pen and ink.” I will add a pencil, a biro or a stylus. This is exactly what learning to write means for small children – copying letters and patterns. They actually enjoy it. Copying and practising is what learning means at five or six years old.
What happens in real classrooms.
I have to wonder how long it is since Dr Yelland went into a classroom to observe the teaching of hand-writing. Dr Yelland needs to talk about what is happening not what she guesses must be happening. In today’s classrooms there is no space to “model” handwriting. White boards have become very, very small. Most of them are partially covered in pieces of paper. Teachers find it hard to write carefully on a white-board. When teachers do write lists of words and other material, it is not for the purpose of modelling letter formation.
I will explain in greater detail. Because teachers do not “show and write”, children write their letters to get them to appear correct. Children know what a letter should look like when complete but often they have no idea about where to start, how to shape the letter in the right direction or how to finish it. And because there is limited or no modelling in the classroom, children have the practice books and are told to practise at home.
In other words, handwriting – even printing – is not being taught as earnestly as it was in the past. In the “whole language” classroom, hand-writing is a skill that many teachers appear to believe children will pick up without explicit instruction.
The problem is the way hand printing and handwriting are taught. These skills are critical to the entire concept of literacy and always were. The trend in thinking that handwriting is outdated is a failure to grasp the basis of what literacy is.