September 16, 2012
As Computers Rise, Schools Witness The Slow Death Of Cursive
Tyler Meder, a 13-year-old growing up outside Chicago, is a model eighth-grader. He's an early riser, a hard worker, and an honors student at school.
Even back in third grade, he remembers being excited when his teacher began a unit in cursive handwriting.
"I liked it, because I like to write fast," he says. "And so cursive was nice, for writing fast."
There was just one problem: The lessons lasted just half a year.
After that, Tyler never took another class in cursive again. After a while, he went back to writing in simple block letters. And without much practice, he admits his handwriting leaves something to be desired.
"I write it too fast, and it ends up looking bad," he says. "I think if I would have had more writing classes, it might be a little better."
His mother, Meredith, fondly remembers her own cursive classes, which lasted several years and involved repeating certain letters "over and over" before students could even move on to simple words and then sentences.
As a result, her handwriting today is elegant and clear -- that is, except to her son. Meredith says she recently became aware of the problem after leaving a handwritten note for Tyler before going to work.
"I don't even remember what the note said. Probably something like, 'Have a good day, call me when you get home.' Something like that," she recalls. "And later that morning, he called me and he said, 'Mom, I just had to call because I saw you left me a note but I was really having a hard time deciding what you had written.' He said, 'I figured out a couple of the words but I couldn't really tell what you had written me.'
"And without even thinking, obviously, I had written the note in cursive, and he could not even read part of it. And that made me, well, a little sad."
Cursive Being Dropped
Cross-generation dilemmas like these are only likely to become more frequent, as technology's global rise puts more and more children in touch with keyboards rather than pens and paper.
In the United States, penmanship was once an important part of the elementary-school curriculum, with children often studying cursive handwriting -- the conjoined form of the Latin alphabet -- for several years in a row in order to master the style.
Now, more than 80 percent of American public schools have dropped cursive from their classrooms, using the time to teach typing and other technological skills instead.
It's a development that distresses many handwriting advocates.
Barbara Getty, the co-author of "Write Now," a guide on improving "cacography," or sloppy handwriting, spent more than four decades in the western U.S. state of Oregon teaching penmanship to both children and adults.
She says her time as an elementary schoolteacher convinced her that children reap tremendous benefits from the slow but steady process of learning to write by hand.
"I think children love to write. I think they love to make marks on paper. But people think handwriting doesn't count," she says. "There is very little attention paid to actually teaching handwriting, except for those few teachers who are very interested in having their children have a legible hand. So I'm very sad to think that in the public schools, handwriting has become hardly an issue."
'Half Of Knowledge'
The trend is evident across many Western countries, where schools are now putting an emphasis on the content and quality of a student's writing, rather than basic skills like penmanship, spelling, or even grammar.
But such logic runs counter to traditional thinking in places like Afghanistan, where one popular saying posits that "beautiful handwriting is half of knowledge."
There, children still receive ample classroom training in the elaborate, Arabic-based Dari and Pashto scripts.
In Russia, children begin learning the Russian Cyrillic script -- which to an outsider can often look like a bewildering series of identical loops -- as early as age 6, and may end up studying it a total of three or four years.
Instruction is so strict that today, even with the status of computers rising fast, the Russian hand remains remarkably uniform among children and adults alike.
There, children may still be able to read handwritten letters and documents with relative ease.
But some Western observers still worry that younger generations may soon find cursive writing and other forms of orthography as difficult to decipher as medieval manuscripts.
'Cheapest Tool We Have'
Steve Graham, a professor of education at Arizona State University, admits to having "horrible" handwriting and no particular nostalgia about the vanishing art of penmanship.
Many handwriting advocates argue that the next generation of adults will be so unversed in cursive that they will be unable to write their own signature or read historic documents, or a letter from their grandmother.
But Graham believes such arguments are overly dramatic.
"One of the examples of this is that [people say] kids won't be able to read the Constitution. So a rebuttal to that is, how often do you actually read the American Constitution?" he says. "And secondly, [the Constitution] can also be presented in text. The information doesn't change, the words don't change when it's in a more traditional type form. On the other hand, I don't think we're going to see the demise of handwriting. It's the cheapest tool we have for writing right now."
It is also, Graham acknowledges, a useful skill for people who want to be effective writers.
While most people write legibly enough to be understood, people with better handwriting are more likely to have their written opinions taken seriously. Sloppy scribblers, meanwhile, may see their ideas held in lower esteem.
Children, likewise, may be able to feel more confident about composing text if they are comfortable holding a pen and able to write quickly and clearly.
Getty, who spent years teaching penmanship to everyone from students and police officers to lawyers and doctors -- famously the worst handwriters -- says she has seen hundreds of people suffer at work and school because of their inability to write neatly.
But Getty says there's more than professional value to good handwriting.
As a professional calligrapher who still writes handwritten letters and thank-you cards every day, Getty says the slow death of penmanship will take an emotional toll as well.
"The thing about it, it's personal. Our walk is very personal, our talk is very personal. And when you get a letter or a note in the mail, you can tell who it's from if you know the person, because it's identified in the handwriting," Getty says. "I'm hoping that people will see handwriting as being very, very essential."
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