No More Cursive

Note this out of the State of Indiana, as reported by WKRC Cincinnati:

“Elegant maybe, but in Indiana schools, cursive writing is headed the way of the ink well and the chalkboard. The flowing handwriting, often called ‘long hand’ or ‘script’ will no longer be required learning in Indiana’s public schools. Instead, students will focus more on typing.”

The same is true in other states, and the Common Core standards don’t include cursive, either.  Why keep it, though, in a keyboard era?  Cursive is slow, and it requires too much concentration on the shape of the printed letter.  It makes the writing of a five-letter word come about through five distinct actions.

Compare that plodding, discriminating process to typing.  Typing is much faster, and the shape of the individual letters doesn’t matter to the pressing of buttons.  A five-letter word comes about through five actions that are barely distinguishable (instead of pressing here with an index finger, you press 1/4 inch to the right with a middle finger . . .).  And you can type while looking somewhere else, too.  It’s faster, more efficient, less focused on the form of each letter, less absorbing of attention.

We might ask, however, whether those very virtues of keyboard writing are less conducive to basic literacy learning than handwriting (not just cursive, but print, too). Here is an article in the journal Advances in Haptics entitled “Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing,” by Anne Magnen and Jean-Luc Velay, that examines the cognitive differences between handwriting and keyboard writing that suggests those difficulties of the former deliver specific mental benefits.

The authors single out a few crucial distinctions.

One, in handwriting eyes and hands focus upon the same thing, the letter in formation.  With typing, eyes and hands focus on different things (screen and keys, respectively), producing “a distinct spatiotemporal decoupling between the visual attention and the haptic input.”  (“Haptics” is the science of “tactile perception and active movements.”) Two, the hand-writer has to “graphomotorically” form each letter, while the type-writer works with ready-made letters and only has to find the right space for it.  This makes typing more “phenomenologically monotonous” than handwriting.

While phenomenological simplicity and a separation (or liberation) of the eyes from the point at which a pencil touches a page well suit ordinary activities in the workplace or in leisure life, in learning situations, they may pose a disadvantage.  There, the goal isn’t to produce writing products, but to develop basic literacy.  Activities that appear inefficient in out-of-school contexts aren’t necessarily so in elementary school classrooms.

Recent neuroscientific evidence, the authors say, “show that the specific hand movements involved in handwriting support the visual recognition of letters.”  That is, having to form letters by hand helps a child learn to recognize letters when reading.  Forcing the eyes to zero in on the same spot at which the fingers are working engages the mind more intently upon the letters and words to be learned.  The slower, plodding, and (often) painful or irksome method builds stronger reading and writing skills.

I once told a freshman writing class that, for the next paper, they had to write the first draft by hand, and I wanted to see a copy.  One student blurted out, “Wait a minute, that’s so much harder!”  Exactly.

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