When I taught third grade, the one thing that incoming students looked forward to the most was learning cursive. We learned a new letter just about every day and the students looked forward to eventually learning how to write their name. Some tried writing their name without the proper technique, often forming letters incorrectly. For the most part, I could read what they were writing, but at the same time, I corrected it. Their cursive was supposed to look like the letters shown across the top of the whiteboard in the front of the room. For many students, they loved writing in cursive, even though it took them much longer to write. As they moved on to fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, they were required to write some assignments completely in cursive. I thought cursive was pretty important. I don’t anymore.
The increased use of computers to “write” is the main reason I’ve changed my thoughts on this. In addition, the cursive that most of us actually use, if we use any, isn’t perfect. We’ve adapted some of the letters, probably print a few, and simply make our handwriting our own. And it doesn’t matter one bit. I don’t think cursive writing is important, but I do think students need good handwriting. They need to be able to express themselves in the written form.
I haven’t really given this much thought lately until I came across two things. First, this blog post by Jeff Utecht about legislation in the state of Washington to make cursive instruction mandatory in elementary schools. Jeff shared his thoughts on this a little, but did something even better. He asked students what they thought. Check out his post and see what the students have to say.
The second was a podcast titled “Who Needs Handwriting?” from Freakonomics Radio. The podcast tackles the issue from both sides and brings up interesting research on the topic. I encourage you to listen to the podcast yourself, but here are a few things that stood out to me while I was listening.
According to a study done by an online letter-printing outfit called Docmail, one in three respondents had not written anything substantial by hand in the previous six months.
There’s also a lot of discussion on the podcast about the positives of handwriting on the brain and that students remember more of what they write.
Processing the information as you go — what we call encoding — is not the only value of note-taking. There’s also the external storage function. That is, creating a record for future reference.
MUELLER: What we found was that for factual questions, there was no difference between laptop and longhand note-takers — they did equally well. However, for conceptual questions, the longhand note-takers did significantly better, about a half a standard deviation better.
The podcast even discusses shorthand, it’s history, and how it can be so much faster than even keyboarding. However, it’s not a reasonable alternative to regular printing or cursive.
If you have any interest in this topic, listen to the podcast or read the transcript, great points for both sides are made. In my opinion, students need to be able to express themselves in the written form, but that form does not have to be cursive. If they can write neatly and express themselves, it’s good. They probably won’t have to do it very much as they grow up, much like many of the other things they learn in school.