Why Teaching Cursive Handwriting Is An Outdated Waste Of Time

Many lament that the "good old days" when they were taught "the basics" at school have gone.

Handwriting picture from Shutterstock

When launching the National Curriculum in 2010, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd stated his objective was:

… without apology, to get back to the absolute basics on spelling, on sounding out letters, on counting, on adding up, on taking away. The basics that I was taught when I was at primary school a long time ago, and that's what our national curriculum is all about.

Many would include the teaching of handwriting on this list of "basics".

In the meantime, we have moved into the 21st century with new technologies permeating every aspect of our lives. No-one would think to ask the textile industry to go back to using the "Spinning Jenny", an antiquated machine that enabled the production of textiles, or decree that a laundry go back to washing clothes by hand. But they think it's okay to ask teachers to concentrate on industrial revolution "basics".

There are obviously foundational skills and concepts that we all need to acquire. This includes knowing how our language works and the conventions of grammar and spelling, since these enable us to communicate more effectively.

But what of concerns about the poor handwriting skills of 21st-century students? English teacher Christopher Bantick, a self-confessed Luddite, wants computers and typing to be subjected to tests that will show that they improve learning — yet not the same for the pencil. He states:

I have just completed marking end-of-term secondary school exam papers. All were hand-written. The writing was somewhere between reasonable to poor. The reason? A lack of practice. Exams and handwritten answers are here to stay across Australia for the immediate future.

Why do students have to write answers with pens in exams? They are much faster at typing, so why are they not allowed to use their laptops in their final exams?

Most recently, the media reported a research project as having found that students who took notes by hand had better learning outcomes than those who took notes on a laptop. But when you actually go to the source of the study, the results indicate that learning outcomes were related to answering two different types of questions.

There were no differences in responses to factual questions (for example, "how long ago did the Inca civilisation exist?") between the two groups, but the handwritten note group did perform better on conceptual tasks ("In what ways do the Incas differ from the Mayans?"). The differences in performance were attributed to the type of notes taken.

Those typing took longer verbatim notes because they were fast and had time. Handwritten notes required more conceptual thinking because of the slowness of the process — the students had to be more selective in what they could write. You might think that the more detailed typewritten notes would enable the students to draw on more information to answer conceptual questions more effectively — but this did not happen. The study did not extend to discover why this might have occurred.

But short-term instruction on note-taking did not improve the performance of answering the conceptual questions for the typing group. Thus, it was the type of notes taken, not the medium, that was relevant. It leads us to think that effective instruction on note-taking and assessments that require short answers might have the potential to benefit typing computer users.

Criticisms of student handwriting centre on a perceived lack of ability to write legible cursive in test situations, as well as in everyday life. Yet when was the last time you wrote in cursive? While there is recognition that using a pencil or pen is a useful skill to have, spending school time on learning cursive, via careful copying of the letters and patterns, does not seem a particularly good use of school time.

Professor Amy Bastian from John Hopkins University, a motor neuroscientist, notes:

The more variety of things you do in the fine motor domain, the more variety of hand movements you make, will improve your dexterity.

But Bastian does not distinguish between writing in cursive or printing. Steve Graham, an education researcher from Arizona State University, takes it one step further and declares:

It really doesn't matter if it's manuscript or cursive.

So this is what it comes down to — a lack of practice, as Bantick stated. But not practice in using a pen or pencil. Some reports say students are not writing much in schools at all. They are filling in blanks on worksheets, one-sentence responses to set questions and only sometimes some short pieces summarising information.

21st-century learners need to have opportunities to write — to create narratives, with pens, pencils and keyboard. Not only will this give them the best chance of learning in different formats, it will enable them to become fluent in both. What they don't need is endless cursive practice on mindless sheets and being required to write in this mode for exams.The Conversation

Nicola Yelland is Professor of Education at Victoria University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    I hand write every single day as a part of my job. Its simply better than typing - you cant type on your laptop when you're standing or walking, and the only way to do it effectively on a tablet is by using a stylus - which requires the same skills as hand writing.

    Learning cursive is unnecessary, but don't get to thinking that the same goes for basic hand writing. Future generations will be worse off without that skill.

      How is typing on a tablet while walking less effective than using a stylus? I find it easier, and easier still on my phone.
      Just curious as to why you assume this.

        You shouldn't be typing on anything and walking. If you've got to type, just stop somewhere. I'm fed up with having to move out the way of people typing as they go and not paying attention - it's honestly a bit stupid and dangerous.

    I grew up and went to school without computers until my final year of school and we had 'labs' of computers which we only go to use for researching assignments.

    My hand-writing is AWFUL, I can never seem to get the neatness anyone else has.
    People younger than me can writer neater and prettier, but I can't seem to get the hang of it.

    I think it comes down to individual skill really.
    A bit of practise can improve it a bit, but isn't going to fix it.

      It's because of school. I used to have totally awesome cursive flowing handwriting until the last few years of high school where we needed to copy huge amounts of data down in a short time.

      I relearned how to write fast, but very messy. I really have to try when writing to be neat again.

      I think it comes down to individual skill really.
      A bit of practise can improve it a bit, but isn't going to fix it.

      Actually, practice does fix it, and it doesn't take long. 5 Minutes a day for about a month will improve it radically. It is just an automated hand-eye-brain system, or muscle memory as some people call it.
      Good handwriting is still extremely usefull, I teach programming, but many, many things in this world are hand-written still, and there is no point writing something if people can't read it.
      It is a useful skill, can be learned by anyone that doesn't have a physical disability, we have taken some of the worst handwriters to producing quite lovely, and extremely legible text.

      Plus, it is just classy to hand something to someone that is well hand-written.

    Why do students have to write answers with pens in exams? They are much faster at typing, so why are they not allowed to use their laptops in their final exams?

    Some laptops are louder than others and the last thing I would want in an exam is hearing 200 people all typing away. Also, what if the battery runs out, or the computer crashes? An exam hall floor would be strewn with extension cables for all students to plug in to, and also who's to say a student hasn't stashed a bunch of answers away in a folder?

      Handwriting is a basic life skill. That doesn't necessarily mean cursive - I stopped writing in cursive, except for my signature, many years ago, with that role taken over by sloppy print.

      You need to be able to print for many reasons.
      - Laptops in exams require infrastructure and require you to trust students not to cheat by loading up their laptops with other material. These are probably the same laptops used to note the material in the first place.
      - Not all students have decent laptops. Laptops are moderately expensive and the government programme that paid for them has finished.
      - You don't always have a device with typing support handy.
      - Many forms require you to hand write your answers. Filling in almost any form requires handwritten answers (most commonly upper-case print.)
      - Batteries run out.
      - When sketching (for example, when drafting out a rough diagram) you need to annotate it.
      - Sometimes you are using the device you would type with for something else. Who hasn't occasionally taken a note on the back of one hand?

      Anyway, while I agree that teaching cursive is probably no longer necessary, SOME form of handwriting is fundamental.

      [Edit] Oops, intended as a top-level comment.

      Last edited 13/02/15 8:39 pm

    There is evidence to suggest that learning to write cursive builds neural pathways in the brain that assist in complex thinking. Because writing in that fashion means there is planning on the way letters have to be put together, along with whether they will fit on the line itself, there has been evidence to suggest it's important in relationship to other skills. There's a book called "The Brain that Changes" that goes into it in further depth. Hand writing is an important skill to have quite apart from this - how romantic is a typewritten card with Valentine's around the corner for example?

      But is that something you can only get from learning cursive? From the sound of it you could replace it with a more effective class where kids play puzzle games.

      Goodness, I'm stuffed then. I always have problems with all the planning when handwriting, never leaving enough room for the word I want to write next on the line.

      And yeah, I've been to quite a few weddings over the past few years, and I write on the card by printing, not cursive. It actually makes my handwriting somewhat legible to others.

    Taking hand written notes is a lot easier than on computer. You have the ability to quickly sketch out concepts and add notations and arrows in a split second. Sure, doing this on a computer is possible - but it takes a lot longer and has constraints.

      But is there any reason the notations have to be written cursively?
      As a software developer, I spend my day on the computer all day. I do write notes on a little whiteboard (so as not to waste so much paper), but it's all manuscript. I've lost the ability to do cursive. And it's probably a good thing, too, as no one would be able to understand my cursive notes, probably not even me the next day.

        No. My comment wasn't about cursive. Write how you wish with the audience in mind (for legibility).

    Perhaps I'm just being picky but... I didn't think cursive was the favoured style any more, in NSW anyway. Back in 1985 I was in fifth class (in Catholic school), and we were taught foundation style. I do remember being taught cursive in fourth or third class, but thereafter foundation was preferred and encouraged.

    The advantages of foundation style is that it is based on printing, with letters such as b, p and s looking much more like their printed counterparts than in cursive. The outcome was a hand that was easier to learn and easier to read, and probably faster to write. I myself find it easier to write longhand in a mix of foundation and printing, with proper printing requiring a special effort to keep the letters 'unjoined'.

    By all means don't bother with teaching cursive, but other styles such as foundation may still be worth teaching.

    P.S. As a nurse, I can say handwriting is still the required method of making patient notes in most NSW Health facilities. Those notes are used to determine patient care and can be used in court. Having a legible hand in this case is essential.

    Last edited 10/02/15 11:15 am

    I'm pretty sure Queensland stopped teaching cursive over a decade ago. They switched to "Italic" printing I think.

    I still write in cursive. <.<

    It's quicker and neater for me to cursive it up than it is for me to print. Unless it's printing in all caps.

    Edit because it's awaiting moderation. :C

    Last edited 10/02/15 12:08 pm

    In grade four my hand writing wasn't perfect so in grade 5 they put me in the class with the 'best' writing teacher. We learned all that flourished bullshit and it completely destroyed my ability to write in a way people understand (especially since the other grade 5/6 classes didn't learn any of it). It also messed with my ability to draw, so I ended up abandoning that hobby. When I write formally people struggle to read it as more than just squiggles. It makes me look like an absolute wanker if I use it casually and it's outright rejected on anything official.
    Meanwhile I learned to touch type around that time and even back then I could do most of my writing on the PC. So now 20 years later when I write normally it's all still more or less at the same level it was in grade four. My BAS statements look like I paid a kid fill them in for me...

    I'm not saying teaching and improving hand writing skills is bad but it's super important to keep an eye on how/why it's being taught. With computers being such a huge part of our lives now things need to constantly be re-evaluated. The role of hand written text has changed pretty dramatically. High skill formal hand writing has been replaced by knowing how to format a typed document properly. When writing by hand neat, functional and clear is what matters.

      My problem seems similar to yours, even though they aren't.

      I'm currently in Year 9. My primary school pushed cursive, and now I can only write in cursive. I have to try really hard to write in legible print that doesn't look like somebody in kindergarten did it. And my cursive sucks anyway. I have to type all my work on a laptop.

    Cursive is unnecessary, and I actually don't know anyone who writes in full cursive (I join some letters when handwriting, but it's still mostly printing). When I was at uni I also found that when I handwrote notes I tended to remember the content much better than if I typed them, but that may be a generational thing (PCs were only just becoming mainstream when I was in primary school so I still spent most of my school years handwriting things).

    Historically cursive evolved because more transaction record keeping was required and the single letters began to join because of the increased speed. The number one comment on most comment boards is that people who write in cursive find it faster. Of course if you haven't been taught cursive or had enough practice to master it, this won't happen.
    In places where cursive has already been discontinued (unofficially of course), the next level of decline is that printing also deteriorates because of lack of use.
    There are many countries around the world that still require students to master cursive handwriting and usually it is taught beginning in grade one. They will be our competition in the years ahead. They giggle when they see our babyish printing.
    Companies are already experiencing difficulties when younger employees cannot read anything written in cursive (post-it notes and the like) because they were never taught to write in cursive. They establish a screening process that ensures new hires can write in cursive. Often times this results in hiring a better educated person because private schools and home schooled children are still being taught cursive as well. Eventually this could also lead back to a class system.

    I write cursive (but not Copperplate) every day - but it's legible and not unpleasant to look at. It's faster than letter by letter. In extremis, it's also an art form that's pleasant to look at. I can also two-thumb type on my phone and 5-finger type on my computer, both quite fast. But my phone and tablet are both Galaxy Notes, so that I can also hand-write if necessary. Hand writing is just another tool in the arsenal of written communication, in fact, it was the first one. Which tradie doesn't have a "real" screw driver or 10 in his toolbox even though he's also got at least one cordless driver too?

    Handwriting is not a skill that should die out. The Book of Kells was written about 1200 yrs ago, painstakingly by hand, and after all that time, through floods, fires and yet it is STILL legible using only the technology we are all born with - our eyes. Try getting data off a floppy disk from an Apple 2+ now? Or even a floppy from an IBM PC? Just 20-30 yrs old?

    It's a power-failure proof system. Just like when I took my slide rule to one of my engineering finals at Uni in case my AAA cell-powered LED display calculator ran out - (Ok, so what if that WAS about a 100 years ago?). Come the big EMP or solar flare, or when Skynet controls all electronic pathways, only those who can still write by hand will be the scribes of the future, recording new history for the even further future.

      As a matter of fact, I still have and use regularly, the Parker fountain pen I was given as a 13 year old, over 40 years ago now.

    I learned one style of cursive script - then I moved and, and the new school insisted on a different style.
    Then I got a job that required making entries in a (maintenance) log book - and cursive script was banned. I've been using manuscript style ever since.

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