Do students need to learn cursive?

Special to The HeraldMarch 31, 2014 

Handwriting matters – but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility.

Further research demonstrates that the fastest, clearest handwriters are neither the print-writers nor the cursive writers. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them – making only the simplest of joins, omitting the rest, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes – even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there's even an iPad app to teach how: named “Read Cursive,” of course.) So why not simply teach children to read cursive – along with teaching other vital skills, including some handwriting style that's actually typical of effective handwriters?

Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority – 55 percent – wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why mandate it?

Cursive's cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you stunningly graceful, adds brain cells, instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant. (This has been the case throughout the South Carolina deliberations on the matter.)

So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things becomes evident when others examine the claimed support:

1. Either the claim provides no traceable source, or ...

2. If a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is perennially misrepresented by cursive's defenders as a study “comparing print-writing with cursive”), or ...

3. The claimant – correctly – quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either No. 1 or No. 2.

What about signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind.

(Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

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. 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.

All writing, not just cursive, is individual – just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which of twenty-five or thirty students produced it.

Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

Kate Gladstone is a handwriting expert living in Albany, N.Y.

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