In too many schools, teaching handwriting—especially cursive—is extinct.
Over the last half-century, America’s public, private, religious and charter schools became obsessed with “critical thinking.” As that obsession grew, mechanical processes were discarded. Emphasizing grammar, the doctrine taught, inhibited children from expressing their thoughts. Teaching historical facts repressed students’ creative opinions about past events. Memorizing mathematical formulas hindered students’ ability to solve problems independently. Phonics obstructed verbal creativity and restricted linguistic, ethnic, and regional diversity. Handwriting was only one more casualty of these waves of critical enthusiasm.
As these theories gained popularity, all students’ learning abilities spiraled ever lower.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of these skills, cursive handwriting, is returning. “About half the states now have a law or state standard requiring cursive instruction, many of them passed in recent years.”
Once Important, Now Discarded
For those millions who were never taught to use the cursive alphabet, a brief description of this art of beautiful writing may be in order.
Merriam-Webster defines cursive as a form of writing in which the letters flow “with the strokes of successive characters joined and the angles rounded.” It is usually contrasted with “block printing,” in which each character is separated, and the lines are more often straight.
In the past, block printing predominated in the primary grades, given that young children still need to develop the fine motor skills to produce cursive writing. Then, sometime in second or third grade, teachers began to train their students to use cursive. The key was practice. Students might use a whole line on a sheet of paper to copy lowercase letters like those that the teacher made on the chalkboard. Originality was undesirable; the goal was to replicate the model.
This training aspect was appalling to the “modern” educators in the mold of John Dewey. It opposed the “democratic” ideals Dr. Dewey thought education should embody. Handwriting instruction was mechanical, rote, repetitive and—to the modernist frame of thought—soul destroying. At best, it was a necessary evil.
Computers and Keyboards
Teachers responded in the way that most people react to unfortunate necessities by spending as little time as possible on them. So, over decades, schools gradually abandoned the ability to write beautifully.
Many argued that the computer keyboard would be the death knell of cursive. After all, if the world communicates by connecting one machine to another, then handwriting is unnecessary. It is a superfluous, outmoded skill important only to the eccentric and nostalgic. Penmanship was sacrificed for the necessities defined by Common Core and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula.
However, education itself is in a freefall. The modernists want to blame the condition on “structural racism” and the necessity of closing schools caused by the Covid pandemic.
Covid and Structural Racism
So-called structural racism is only an attempt to cover up the fact that many liberal “solutions” haven’t achieved their lofty goals. Unable to admit that their progressive impulses are horribly mistaken, the left clings to the idea that the real culprit is some lingering sense of oppression that cannot be defined or eliminated.
On the other hand, closing the schools for up to two years was authentically disastrous. The “distance education” experiment failed miserably, proving that computers could never replace teachers. It also revealed leftist messages—previously communicated in the relative privacy of the classroom—to concerned parents.
In Covid’s wake, new scrutiny was given to many basic ideas behind liberal education. Some previously discarded practices are being reconsidered. Among them is handwriting instruction.
The Rebirth of Cursive Handwriting
During the depth of the Covid experience, a little-known organization called the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation released a white paper titled Why Handwriting Remains Essential in 2021 and the Future. It is worth close examination since it spells out many reasons why teaching handwriting is—and will remain—important. The balance of this article will give readers a taste of those arguments.
The first set of reasons connects handwriting to other academic goals. For instance, “research shows that those who take notes by hand outperform those who type notes on a laptop or Apple iPad or tap them into a smartphone.” Forming letters on paper engages the mind far more than tapping them out on a device, thereby facilitating the learning process.
This idea is especially true for young children. A 2019 report by the George Lucas Educational Foundation posits that there is “a strong connection between the hand and the natural circuity of the brain—as students learn to better write the critical features of letters, they also learn to recognize them more fluently.”
Important and Lasting Benefits
The advantages of the pen over the keyboard continue into high school and college. One easily understandable benefit is that a blank notebook presents far fewer distractions than a computer. Therefore, the mind remains more focused on the material at hand. There is far less temptation to covertly open another “window” to see the surf the Internet or send text messages to friends.
Ironically, those who have mastered cursive handwriting are also better equipped to use electronic devices. In a 2014 article in the Early Childhood Education Journal, researchers Nancy C. Stevenson and Carol Just of Thomas Jefferson University determined that the “stages of motor learning for handwriting and keyboarding are similar, yet occur at different times.”
Stevenson’s and Just’s research indicates that the facility for handwriting begins at age five and continues past age seven. Keyboarding skills, however, are best learned between ages ten and twelve. Students who developed the skills and muscle memory needed to produce legible handwriting are better equipped to learn to use keyboards proficiently. Such skills will assist those students throughout their academic and professional careers.
There is one more advantage to students, more challenging to quantify, but essential nonetheless. In addition to being an effective means of communication, cursive handwriting is also an art form. As young children practice making the letters and hone the fine motor skills mentioned above, they gain a sense of achievement. They do not need to wait until the teacher tells them they are improving; the evidence is right before them. They can see the improvement. They can feel the increased flexibility of their arms and hands as they build the muscles that control their pens. Before long, they can add their own artistic flair to their handwriting. They participate in acts of creating beauty.
Teaching the Teachers
Given all the advantages, the craft of handwriting should resume its former role in America’s schools. Unfortunately, the teachers are ill-equipped to teach penmanship because their schools never taught them those skills as students.
Except in very traditional schools, handwriting has been out of vogue since the late sixties. Only the very oldest teachers in today’s schools were trained in those skills. This fact necessitates a professional development program for teachers before students can benefit. Such programs are expensive and time-consuming.
Not only are many of the teachers unable to write in cursive, but much of their professional training prejudices them against it. Those attitudes further hinder the process. They are so invested in the ideology of John Dewey and his disciples that they stand in the way of teaching children necessary skills—penmanship, among many others. Thus, bringing teachers on board the cursive train mandated by state laws will take some time.
However, there are many resources to assist parents in filling these gaps in the meantime. Many books on penmanship are available. Some are new; others are reprints of manuals from the late nineteenth century. Both parents and children have much to gain by developing this essential skill.
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