The Tyranny of Cursive

He tried sitting at the dining room table, he tried at my desk. He even tried while lying down in bed. Yet he failed every time and got more and more discouraged with every fruitless attempt. My third grade son has a bright, curious mind, but last week his homework was wearing it down with frustration.image

For this particular assignment, he had to pick out three syllable words from a list, which he can do easily. However, he must then write the words on a tiny, 1.5 inch line on a worksheet His cursive writing is much better than his print, but he still couldn’t fit his answers on the line. As much as I encouraged him to keep trying, he was erasing what little was left of the line and getting more and more angry. He knew that my feeble argument that he has to complete his work just like I have to do my job didn’t have my heart in it.

Am I wrong in thinking that asking children to write with a pen and pencil on tiny little lines on a piece of paper is about as relevant as teaching them to ride a horse?

They will have to commute one day, and therefore need to get around town and go to the store. Why not teach them to ride a horse? Yes, everyone uses cars now, but we used to use horses, it was an essential skill for the 19th century American. Yes, everyone writes with a keyboard now, but we used to write with pens and pencils so let’s force the kids to do it.

Eventually my son finished his homework, but it wasn’t pretty. His younger brother wasn’t as lucky, he did not finish writing every word on this week’s spelling test five times each. And for such an egregious irresponsibility he will have to sit with Mr. McChoakumchild in lunch detention to finish his homework.

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

4 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Cursive

  1. Meredith April 13, 2008 / 7:06 pm

    Actually, “old-fashioned” school exercises, such as practising handwriting or memorizing long poems, have been shown to be good for the brain, even improving seemingly unrelated mental faculties. Since I don’t have my library (i.e. my bedroom at home) with me, you’re going to have to take my word for it, or read a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself,” by Norman Doidge (which isn’t as exclusively “inspirationally”-themed as it looks).

    I would try to find something about it online, but if you think the Internet at school can be slow and frustrating, you obviously have not been online in Argentina.

    On a completely unrelated note, Stephen Fry (of “Blackadder”) has a blog/newspaper column on technological what-not that you might find interesting: His podcasts (or “podgrams,” as he likes to call them) are also fun to listen to, but, at least so far, are not technologically-themed. Just throwing that out there.

    Saludos cordiales.

  2. Meredith April 13, 2008 / 9:44 pm

    Here we go:

    The key part being:

    “Some teaching techniques abandoned in the sixties as too rigid may be worth bringing back. Rote memorization probably strengthened visual and auditory memory (and hence thinking in language and pictures), just as an almost fanatical attention to handwriting probably helped to strengthen motor-symbol-sequencing capacities — and thus not only helped handwriting but also added speed, automaticity, and fluency to reading and speaking.”

    I remember something similar regarding tracing, but you get the point.

  3. Steven Maher April 26, 2008 / 7:05 am

    I have to admit that I’m usually taken to the cleaners whenever I get into this tussle with elementary schools teachers. Those ever-patient, bright-eyed, smiling schoolmarms become raging pit bulls on crack whenever I dare raise a question about their precious curriculum. Not studied in child brain development or even well-read in elementary education, I’m clearly out of my bailiwick here but even a cursory look at the literature surrounding the topic leads me to believe there is some data out there on my side.

    First I have to establish that I am only talking about the process by which students write, the mechanics of recording letters and words. The Society for Public Education article’s promotion of memorization makes sense to me as a history teacher. Exercising the brain to strengthen its capacity while at the same time developing a basic historical literacy is a purposeful academic callisthenic. Of course, the omnipresent question “What facts are worth memorizing” can never be answered with authority. Although that doesn’t bother me, take a look at the Common Core report that claims that our nation is “still at risk”.

    The claim that the full-court press on handwriting provides collateral benefits in reading and speaking (which the SQE posits with just a “probably”) doesn’t convince me. It’s too close to the claim that handwriting is necessary to develop children’s motor skills and tactile development. I’m sure the same benefits can be found in quilting. Why not teach quilting instead of writing? At least with quilting you end up with something that can keep you warm, instead of a skill that you will never use.

    Take a look at the Alliance for Education’s 11 elements in writing instruction in their “WritingNext” report (which was endorsed by the National Writing Project ). Throughout this well-researched and documented approach to improving writing are implicit (and one explicit) arguments for writing with computers rather than pens and pencils. The Renaissance Learning project’s Keyboarding: An Essential Skill for the 21st Century is relevant also.

    If that doesn’t work perhaps I’ll try the retreat into common sense. If cursive writing is designed to improve writing by increasing the speed with which words are recorded, then fully-developed keyboarding skills will also.

    Thanks for the comments Meredith, keep an eye out for Mr. Meguerian, he’s down in your neck of the woods for Spring Break.

  4. Ingrid Kowalski May 28, 2010 / 4:17 pm

    If I had a penny for each time I came here… Amazing post!

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