Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thoughts on Cursive Writing; brain development, genealogy, and more

 So, this is a different sort of post, one that I have been seriously thinking about for the better part of a year or two.  It's one that I write with deep introspection and more than a fair share of worry, that has meaning to me, and to society in general, on so many levels.  I hope you'll take the time to read on. 

I actually first started seriously thinking about the demise of cursive writing when my son Ben, now 24, was in middle school.  He, like so many of us, learned cursive writing beginning in the 3rd grade.  That used to be common practice, at least where I have resided.  By 4th grade, all schoolwork handed in was required to be written in cursive. 

But by the time Ben was in middle school I noticed he was back to using printed letters for most of his handwritten schoolwork, and when I asked, he said cursive wasn't required; actually it wasn't ever even mentioned any more.  By high school, I never saw him use cursive for anything.  But his printing was pretty illegible.  You see, my son was (still is) a quick thinker, and my feeling was that with cursive writing, the flow and connectedness would more appropriately match the flow of thought from his brain.  But I'm not a scientist or an expert on the brain.

My classroom was on the same hallway as grades 4-6 classrooms in the school building where I spent my last dozen or so years teaching.  In the early years in the building, student papers on display in the hallway (stories, essays, etc) were always in cursive, but by the time of my retirement this past June, I never saw any cursive work in the hall at all, with the exception of a few kids: these were kids who were new to our school districts; transfers from other school districts, places far away.  If you asked the teachers, they would say that they used to spend classroom time practicing cursive, but didn't any more.  They had too much other stuff to do.  And now, with the adoption of the Common Core, keyboarding is critical but it appears cursive writing has gone out the window.

So I started wondering about how the ramifications of this loss.  A quick internet search made me realize that I was not the only person with concerns about the demise of cursive writing.  Here's a handful of articles that I found, with information that backs up my own personal hypotheses.  Pick a couple and take the time to read.  I truly believe that cursive writing is one of those rare activities that forces our brain hemispheres to work in collaboration with each other, and that the loss of this skill is more than just an 'oh well' concern.  What we do about it; I don't know.

Brain Development Could Suffer as Cursive Writing Fades
Cursive Writing at Risk in US Schools
Left and Right Brain Hemispheres
What Learning Cursive Does for Your Brain
Top Ten Reasons to Learn Cursive
Learning Cursive Boosts Brain Development

 Then, of course, besides the impact on the brain, is the fact that people who don't learn to write cursive, also don't know how to read it!  Imagine looking through wonderful old historical documents, and not knowing what they say!  I have letters written to me by my beloved (deceased) father during my college years, and letters from friends and family that I received at Girl Scout camp, recipes in my (deceased) mom's handwriting, letters and love notes from boyfriends, and so much more handwritten documentation that is really precious to me.  I can't imagine not being able to read them, and I'm glad they were not all just emails that disappeared during a computer crash or were deleted during a file cleaning.

My brother and I have off and on over recent years been involved in some genealogical research, in particular relating to my sculptor/artist grandfather Harry Levine, who I told you about here and and here and  here back in 2011, as we searched for a missing totem pole he had carved in Croton-on-Hudson in NY state.  (An aside here; just two days ago my brother called me in excitement; someone thought they had finally found the totem pole, in Tarrytown NY.  I quickly emailed a photo of it, but unfortunately it was yet again a dead end.  So the search goes on.) My husband also has done extensive genealogical research on his own family.  Imagine not being able to read these documents belonging to my grandfather.

Now I don't really expect you to be able to read the documents below, even if you still can read cursive, because, of course, they are not in English.  But still, cursive writing is a key to being able to translate this passport (at least that's what we think it is) below, which was for my grandmother, her mother, and two siblings when they were en route to (eventually), we believe, the US having left their home in Vilna (then, Russia).
The postcards below are just a few from a large collection given to me by Grandma when I was young, written in a mix of Russian and Yiddish, and it has been a challenge finding anyone to translate them, but they represent important keys to my family history.
So my question is this: what do we do now?  How can we prevent cursive writing from becoming a lost art?  How can visual art educators play a part?  I think we have a unique comprehension of the vital differences between holding a paintbrush or pen or pencil in our hand, and plunking away on a keyboard or clicking on a screen.  I want to be proactive but don't have a clue as to how I can make a difference.  I'd love your thoughts.


  1. I've wondered the same thing. In Texas, cursive is on it's way out because our standardized tests in writing have to be printed and not in cursive. How are people going to write their own signature for stuff? I myself love cursive because it is so much faster for me.

  2. I'd never given it much thought before, mostly because I still have young kids who haven't gotten to the age of cursive yet. Though I've heard teachers say they don't spend as much time on it as in years past. I never thought about some of the points you've brought up and have got me thinking.

    Visual art and cursive?? Not sure how to tie them in and make a difference. Something to think about.

  3. A couple of week ago there was an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times about how students who wrote their SATs in cursive got slightly better scores. You might be interested in reading it:

    Not sure just what we can do about it though....

    1. Nice article; thanks! When I searched online for information, I just was amazed by the amount of stuff I found. Ad while I'm not sure WHAT we can do, I know that I have to do something. Wy let education omit something that is so obviously GOOD? That aids in brain development? Seems like lately it's more important for kids to know how to fill in bubbles on tests...

  4. Wish I knew what to do. I've been thinking on the demise of cursive for awhile. Just want to say the documents you've included are pieces of art as well as history. They're beautiful. But I suppose you already know that.

    1. Thank you Jane! I agree. And what I've shared is only a tiny selection of what I have, and oh, the other side (the fronts) of the postcards are amazing! Maybe I'll do a whole post on them one if these days - ime to get started scanning!!

  5. Another one bites the dust....Who gets to decide that a complete and beautiful system of expression, penmanship, should be tossed on the trash heap? I think we should start a campaign to Save The Cursive!! We could get t-shirts printed! Something to think about.......

    1. Pat, well-spoken, and I love the T-shirt idea. I guess8d better et working on a design...

  6. This is a quite interesting topic for me!
    As a teacher in Berlin I recognize the same development during the last 15 years.
    For me it is very important that my students practise their coursive writing until they develop in grade six their personal handwriting, which is in most cases a combination of both - coursive and some printed letters. The reasons for my insistence on coursive writing are the same as yours. (My class is a mixed class with students from grade four to six.)
    Most impressing to me is, how students with learning disabilities benefit from learning coursive in my class.
    It is always hard to prove my own, personal experiences and sometimes I feel like a dinosaur... but the more I read about brain research's findings, the more I feel that I'm right in my way of teaching in that case. :-)

  7. We homeschool and are teaching cursive. I have a poem written by my mother at age six in perfectly written, dare I say beautiful cursive writing. Something you don't see now! Thanks for this.

  8. Oh, and how utterly fabulous that you have those items (heirlooms!) from your grandfather! I'd keep them in a fireproof safe!

    1. Thank you, Dawn, for your comments! The fireproof safe might be a good idea for some of the items, or maybe the safe deposit box at the bank. Of course I also have heirloom hand-carved furniture - I don't think that will fit! :)

  9. Dawn S. May 26. 2013 at 12:00 AM

    It is wonderful to know that there is concern regarding cursive writing being omitted from the educational curriculum. Along with the knowledge researched regarding brain development, there also needs to be the understanding of how directed cursive writing influences character development.

    The public, educators, and parents need to be informed of the necessity of cursive writing for appropriate brain and character development. Write articles, talk to educators and parents of the need for cursive writing.

  10. Cursive's back in England, or at least in school's where I've taught. Children in the nursery and reception classes (3-4 years and up)are being taught pre-cursive and cursive as soon as they are able to join the letters. It's thought to aid spelling as they are used to flow and physical movement of writing the letters in one flowing motion.
    I wish I had been taught cursive as my writing would be improved and I wouldn't have had to reteach myself so to teach the children this method!

    1. Excuse the typos in the above, I'm not feeling 100% and this illustrates it!

    2. Hmmm I'm usually an editing freak but I can't find your typos! Anyhow, I agree 100% about the flow of cursive writing and the thought process. Thanks for visiting!

    3. For those of you who check me on my edits, since I say I'm a nut about it, I did find two very minor errors in 'thelittleartroomofrachell's comment: an apostrophe where it should simply be a plural, and a missing space. If there's more, I've missed them.

  11. I'm not sure if you know this already, but the first photo from your Grandmother is in German and French. They are travelling to(or from?) Vienna. They are travelling with three children, 18, 12, and 10 years old.
    Again, please forgive me if you already know this.

    1. Erika, I believe that is a passport (or similar document) for my grandmother, two siblings, and their mom. My grandmother would have been the 18 year old, I think. We knew her as Rae, or Raisa, or Raina, or some other version, but I think she is the Pascha (?) listed. All the name changes have made it impossible to trace my grandparents. I haven't been able to locate any of my grandparents.

  12. Campaign for cursive blog and www.cursiveiscool.com have started an initiative to bring cursive back into the curriculum. They have t-shirts, pencil and stickers available. The more people that keep this topic active and especially let the young parents know how important cursive handwriting will be to their children's future the better. Private schools, home schooled children, and children in many other countries (particularly Spanish speaking countries) still learn cursive. Many people don't know that Mexico did not teach cursive for 22 years and around the millennium year re-introduced it into their curriculum. That's the competition for jobs in the future.

    1. Edda, thanks for stopping by., and for the information. I am now following the blog, and have liked the Cursive is Cool Facebook page, also. I think this is important stuff!

  13. Handwriting matters — does cursive matter? Research finds that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Research sources are available on request.)

    The fastest, clearest writers avoid cursive, though they are not absolute print-writers either. Highest speed and legibility in handwriting belong to those who join some letters, NOT all: joining only the most easily joined letters, leaving the rest unjoined, with print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Reading cursive matters, but this is much easier and quicker to master than writing cursive. Reading cursive can be taught in 30 - 60 minutes to anyone who reads print. (There's even an iPad app teaching how — a free download: “Read Cursive” at appstore.com/readcursive .)

    Why not teach children to READ cursive — along with other vital skills, such as a form of handwriting that is actually typical of effective handwriters?
    Teaching material for a better method abounds — especially in the UK and Europe, where such handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive that's loved by too many North American educators. Examples of a better handwriting, often with student work: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/curriculum.html

    Educated adults quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference run by Zaner-Bloser, a cursive textbook publisher. Only 37% wrote in cursive; 8% printed. The majority (55%) wrote with some elements like print-writing, others resembling cursive.
    (To take part in another, ongoing poll of handwriting forms — not hosted by a publisher, not restricted to teachers — see http://www.poll.fm/4zac4 for the One-Question Handwriting Survey. As with the Zaner-Bloser survey, results so far show very few purely cursive handwriters, and even fewer purely printed writers. Most handwriting in the real world consists of print-like letters with occasional joins.)
    When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why glorify it?

    Cursive's cheerleaders suppose that cursive has benefits which justify absolutely anything said or done to promote cursive. They claim (often under oath, to school boards and legislatures) that cursive cures or prevents dyslexia, makes you intelligent, creates proper etiquette and patriotism, improves grammar and spelling, or grants numerous other blessings which are no more prevalent among cursive users than among the rest of as. (The claims that it improves English are mostly in very bad English — beautifully penned.)
    Some invoke research: citing studies that they misquote or misrepresent. often in testimony to school districts, legislatures, and other decision-makers. Bills for cursive are perennially introduced by legislators whose misrepresentations are then revealed: often with signs of undue influence on the legislators. (Documentation on request: I'm glad to be interviewed by anyone who will put this serious issue before the public.)
    You wonder: “How about signatures?” In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
     Questioned document examiners (specialists in identifying signatures, verifying documents, etc.) tell me the least forgeable signatures are the plainest — including print signatures.

    ALL handwriting, not just cursive, is individual (and involves fine motor skills). That is how a first-grade teacher tells right off (from printing on unsigned work) which student wrote it.

    Mandating cursive to support handwriting is like mandating top hats and crinolines to support the art of tailoring.

    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works

  14. Germany and associated countries changed the style of handwriting from Kurrent (based on the printed Fractur blackletter typefaces) to something similar to our style of cursive lettering during WW2. Because of this many Germans cannot read their parents or grandparents letters, etc. With the loss of teaching cursive, we risk the same, and people are already saying that they cannot read it. This bears thinking about.