27 November 2019

Is cursive writing doomed? - updated


From an op-ed piece in the New York Times:
Districts and states should not mandate the teaching of cursive. Cursive should be allowed to die. In fact, it's already dying, despite having been taught for decades. Very small proportions of adults use cursive for their day-to-day writing. Much of our communication is done on a keyboard, and the rest is done with print.

Additionally, there is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching. While both research and common sense indicate students should be taught some form of penmanship, there is simply no need to teach students both print and cursive...

Given these realities, teachers would be better off focusing on the skills and knowledge that will impact student success in the future. These include printing and typing, but not cursive. As we have done with the abacus and the slide rule, it is time to retire the teaching of cursive. The writing is on the wall.
Not only did I learn cursive, I learned the abacus and the slide rule as well.  Sigh...

Image from Wikipedia, where I also found these interesting tidbits:
While the terms cursive or script are popular in the United States for describing this style of writing the Latin script, this term is rarely used elsewhere.

The origin of the cursive method is associated with practical advantages of writing speed and infrequent pen lifting to accommodate the limitations of the quill. Quills are fragile, easily broken, and will spatter unless used properly. Steel dip pens followed quills; they were sturdier, but still had some limitations.

The term cursive derives from the 18th century French cursif from Medieval Latin cursivus, which means literally running. This term in turn derives from Latin currere ("to run, hasten")

In the Classical Arabic script, letters of any given word are joined to one another by a continuous flowing line. This flowing script inspired the cursive of Medieval Latin, which in turn developed into the longhand script of English [embed at right]

Cursive handwriting developed into something approximating its current form from the 17th century, but its use was neither uniform, nor standardized either in England itself or elsewhere in the British Empire.

In 2012, the American states of Indiana and Hawaii announced that their schools will no longer be required to teach cursive (but will still be permitted to), and instead will be required to teach "keyboard proficiency".
I'm reposting this rather popular post from 2013 to add the following update about the cursive debate arriving in Wisconsin:
A bipartisan bill requiring all schools to teach cursive writing has been estimated to cost as much as $6 million, but not all supporters of the proposed mandate think the state should help foot the bill. While members of the Senate Committee on Education on Tuesday agreed with the value of learning cursive writing skills, some raised concern that the bill — which does not include funding to public or private schools to offset the cost of implementation — would provide Wisconsin schools with yet another unfunded mandate...
A Department of Administration fiscal estimate for implementing a statewide cursive program projects the per-student cost at $10 to $35 a year and the per-teacher cost at $25 to $160 annually...

Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said in a letter to committee members that the association generally opposes any unfunded mandates on schools.
Achieving mastery of cursive writing can take an “enormous amount of instructional time,” Rossmiller said in the letter.
“In a world that is increasingly moving away from paper communications toward digital and electronic communications, we question the value of spending a significant portion of instructional time in third or fourth grade on cursive writing,” Rossmiller said in the letter.
When I originally posted this topic, the cost of teaching cursive was not considered either in the post itself or in the numerous comments.

I also shared the above links with an old classmate of mine whose career was in education.  His response: "Teaching cursive over the course of several years adds up to a lot of time -- what do we replace/ignore in elementary schools to make the time available?... One of the big problems I have with education law in every state is that it is written by people who, for the most part, have no knowledge of educational best practices... [re] terms like proficiency and mastery in reference to kids "passing" cursive. What do those words even mean?"

Related: Russian cursive looks like scribbles.

51 comments:

  1. Sad, but probably time. In an ideal world we'd still teach it to every child, along with a musical instrument, drawing or painting, dance, poetry, and many other arts. But, that is not society's priorities right now.

    It is odd to think that historical documents that are just barely legible to me will be illegible to the next generation. Fortunately I don't think we're in any danger of losing the ability to read those documents as a society.

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  2. Indiana's curt dismissal of cursive came about as a result of policy decisions made by former DOE State Superintendent Tony Bennett. In this intensely Republican state, Bennett was about the only candidate beaten -- and fairly soundly -- by a Democratic opponent. But don't cry for Tony. He took a job in Florida -- where he'd lifted most of his policies, anyway -- at a _steep_ increase in salary.

    Unfortunately, Glenda Ritz, the new state Superintendent of Education backed by -- I think -- every teacher in Indiana, is being gleefully hampered by our state legislature. 'Cause, you know, those lazy teachers are overpaid. That's why the schools are "so bad," and why Indiana students can get vouchers to go to charter schools, FURTHER depleting funding for public education. And why the core curriculum is being used as a club, rather than a foundation.

    Charter schools are not a better way to educate. Much like for-profit companies running "correctional facilities," it's just another way to transfer public monies to private pockets...

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  3. I work in the education industry (educational website). My husband is an engineer. We do not write. We type. Emails, requirements documents, engineering specifications, and on and on. The only thing I write is my signature on cheques and any other legal documents.

    The most useful class I took in high school was typing. I took loads of other courses, I truly enjoyed -- however the only one in which I developed a skill which I have used day in and day out was typing.

    Cursive writing is dead. Let's teach our students skills that will help them succeed in the 21st century.

    --gem

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  4. I agree that cursive is, at this point, dying, and is a minimal-loss death at that. Unlike cuts to music or arts programs, I don't think the ability to write cursive conveys any real advantage to students, practical or personal.

    However, since the abacus was also mentioned, I'll point out that there are developed nations who do teach it, and that skill can be a boon to know. Flash Anzan [a game invented in Japan, where they do teach abacus - http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/flash-anzan-an-amazing-new-number-game/ ] competitions show folks adding 15 three-digit numbers in less than 2 seconds. The speed might not be necessary, but as an engineer, having read that I've seriously considered teaching it to myself.

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  5. I did a post on Cursive (as well as fonts) on my blog - http://baileysbuddy.blogspot.com/2012/03/conversation-with-jon.html

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  6. Then tell me why my kindergarten student is not being taught the "manuscript" way of writing her letters but a more cursive way? I too thought cursive was on the out but here in my region (south Texas) when children are learning to write they are being taught in a way that is more easily converted to cursive later on. For instance the letters are forward slanting finished with a forward reaching "tail."
    This is a relatively new development too as she is my fourth and child and the only one taught this way. Is this the bastard child of manuscript and cursive that will be the only version taught I wonder?

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    1. Perhaps they are teaching her "italic script" -

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italic_script

      I don't know.

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    2. I was taught a print style called Denelian, which had the tail you describe. It was supposed to make transitioning into cursive easier, but it really just doomed my handwriting for years (the tails make 6-year old handwriting look even sloppier, and I always figured my ideas were more important than how my handwriting looked. Hence, it looks awful). When I took the SAT in...2004? 2005? We had to copy a statement about how we pledged not to cheat...in cursive. Which resulted in the whole room asking each other "how do you do a capital g?" And "really? That's what a cursive z looks like?" Even me, and I went through a phase at 15 of learning actual calligraphy (despite the terrible everyday handwriting).

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  7. In Russia, by contrast, cursive writing is very standardised and taught to all schoolchildren.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_cursive

    I think there's a lot to be said for standardised handwriting, whether cursive or something less florid. While it's true that the use of handwriting is rapidly declining, it's never going to die out completely. If everyone's writing looks roughly the same, interpreting a particular scrawl becomes a lot easier.

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    1. Good to know. I dropped cursive in English when I was in the middle of 4 years of Russian. Cursive for Russian; print for English. Trying to do otherwise meant I kept getting my scripts confused.

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  8. Three cheers to Anon re the writing in Russia; we won't always have access to either a printer or an internet connection and being able to easily read someone's writing could be important in some situations. I recently purchased a book about the brain, which I have lent to someone and therefore cannot access it to confirm what I am sure I read: that getting people with motor skill degeneration to write in cursive script had the effect of stimulating that part of the brain that controls the muscles in the lower arm, with the result that the degeneration was reversed in some individuals. Use it or lose it. And I can't wait to see the court cases in which employers start getting sued by employees who have repetitive strain injury from spending too much time typing at work. This would be surely increased by the time spent typing at home.

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  9. I grew up in Texas, I remember getting an award for handwriting in the second grade, I feel if we teach our children the basics instead of how to take a test, they'd have the time to learn cursive. Yes, it is something that many do not use, just like it's not really necessary to learn to drive a standard transmission car because most are automatics. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't learn to drive a standard, it might come in handy sometime. Our society is getting lazier and lazier, we want it easier, cheaper and now. We have a three year old at home, my wife is home schooling him, he's learning to read, do math and show promise in having his Dad's handwriting skills verses his English mother...., I think this is something we need to continue.

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  10. Contrary to Wikipedia I have never heard anyone in Australia call it "joined-up writing". I see there's already a "citation needed" tag on that claim, which is as it should be.

    In my part of the world, the abandonment of the traditional cursive style occurred at about the same time that I started school, which was in 1983. In fact, I was part of the first wave of students who were not taught it: students one year older were taught traditional cursive, but we were not.

    Different Australian states have strikingly different approaches to handwriting. Via Google Books I found some interesting comparative notes in "Handwriting of the Twentieth Century"" by Rosemary Sassoon -- see page 177 and thereabouts of the 1999 edition in particular (there's a newer edition, but the relevant pages aren't available for preview). I'm from South Australia, so my comments pertain to handwriting in South Australian schools.

    The style taught in South Australia since 1983 is called South Australian Modern Cursive, which is described and demonstrated here (that document has been superceded, but the changes are mostly if not entirely to do with teaching advice and other commentary rather than the style itself, and the older document is more concise and easier to browse). It's a cursive style in the sense that there are links between letters, but it's not a traditional cursive because many letters are not linked (see pages 28-29) and there are very few loops.

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  11. In the school district where I teach (which is large), an all-employee e-mail was sent out asking if we thought cursive ought to be taught in our district. The email specified that you should only reply if you had a strong opinion one way or the other. I replied something like, "Of course we should teach it- what the hell is wrong with you, anyway?" but more politely so. The next day there was another email wherein the sender from the district office had had a sufficient amount of responses, thank you, and she was very surprised at how many responses she got! Well, duh. Honestly, the end of civilization is nigh when we don't teach children how to write right. It's an art. That's why they don't want us to teach it. Everything has to be standardized, mechanized, they want us to make children turn out like carbon copies of each other. People should have their own handwriting. It's like a signature-- wait, it is a signature. How will anyone sign her name without knowing cursive?

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    1. Signatures will be digital encrypted keys in the future, not written words. The technology has existed for a while but, there are many dragging their feet preventing it from becoming a standard. It's the same group of people that keep the antiquated fax machine alive. Sorry but, cursive will die as a general skill no matter what you do to try and prevent it. Of course, like Latin, Aramaic and other skills, there will be a small part of the population that will retain the skill where it'll never truly die. I'm 36 and never learned cursive in school and it has never caused me an issue. There simply is no value in it in the real world.

      There is one area I do agree with you though, standardized testing must die... NOW. Every year we wait to kill it, we release thousands of "adults" whose only skill they learned in school was how to memorize for and beat a standardized test.

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  12. NOTE: The link in the final paragraph of my comment above is broken because I accidentally included a quotation mark (") at the end of the URL. Remove the errant punctuation and the link works.

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  13. I was given formal permission in 4th grade (in the mid '90s) to never use cursive again. Our assignments were required to be written in cursive, but mine was illegible. My print wasn't much better! I rarely have used cursive since and still have bad handwriting. It is true that my typing proficiency is an important skill in our modern world, but I value the fact that I am able to READ just as fluently. This includes cursive! I cannot fathom the supposed merits of what would effectively be a reduction in literacy. Just what we need...more dumbing down. It's not like cursive's even all that hard or would take that much time to teach. It's not Japanese!

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  14. In the late 19th century Ruy Barbosa argued that the elimination of drawing classes from high school education (both from the classical and the scientific curriculae) would damage the thought capacity of children in regard of planning and analysis. Nevertheless, economy always gets to remove any technique from circulation as soon as it is no longer profitable... I mean profitable, not useful. To me it seems handwriting is being progressively removed from curriculae since the invention of the typewriter.

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  15. I remember learning cursive. We used an unusual size of newsprint paper with pale blue lines, both solid and dotted. There was not an instruction book but an envelope filled with lessons for each week. I found it to be much like art instruction so I enjoyed it.

    But for my children, it was the bane of their existence. We moved frequently due to my spouse's career and different districts around the country use slightly different forms of cursive. My son in particular was always getting in trouble for using the "wrong" cursive.

    All of us are now adults. And all of us type or print our words. Will we still need our signatures? Surely we have many other ways of identifying ourselves.

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    1. Current signatures will eventually fade. Digital encrypted keys will be used instead. The technology has been available for some time but, adoption has been slow. With everyone now having cell phones, that is probably how it'll take shape. Our phones will carry our signatures and we'll use some hopefully secure method of commanding our phones to transmit it.

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  16. You say that we call it "joined-up" writing here in Australia, but when I learned it, we called it "running writing". In Year 4 (or thereabouts, I think - about age 9 or 10) we were granted a "pen license" when our handwriting had progressed far enough that we didn't have to use a pencil for schoolwork any more.

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    1. Was about to make the same comment. I've never heard of "joined-up" writing before, it was always called "running writing", and in fact i still call it that. I didn't know what "cursive" was until i saw Billy Madison, either.

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    2. My daughter tells me when she was taught to write, it was called "cursive". She's almost 18. I guess we're showing our age, calling it "running writing!"

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    3. Well, i'm only 27... Maybe the American trend is taking off? So many other American trends are, after all... I occasionally hear the term "cell phone" bandied about by younger people on trains, as well as "candy" (not lollies) and "eraser" (not rubber). Unheard of when i was a lad.

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  17. (I've deleted the "joined-up" sentence from the Wikipedia citation.)

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    1. It could well be true of other places, but i can say at least in Sydney it isn't.

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  18. I hated writing in cursive. It was torture for me for whatever reason. I much prefer print, and I even find it can be lovely. So this doesn't seem like a big loss to me. However, the angst and humility I went through as a sloppy writing probably had some kind of positive influence on my character. Oh man! Now I don't know what to think about this.

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  19. I learned cursive in grade school, but rarely use it today aside from signing things. I do, however, remember that I had to really think when I was learning to *read* cursive. I could see that being a big help to anyone who later decides to learn to read a language in a different alphabet.

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    1. Yeah. And if for that reason alone, we should teach it.

      Of course, we should teach lots of things with limited practical aspects because how else will students figure out what they want to learn if they're not taught it exists?

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  20. I had abysmal handwriting as a child due primarily to my dysgraphia. To this day I write almost exclusively in block capitals when I don't have a keyboard handy. I still have difficulty with lower case printing because too many characters are left-right symmetric and I tend to reverse them (although as an adult I can see that I reversed them immediately after writing them). Cursive never helped me much.

    In fact the two biggest lies teachers ever told me about the "real world":
    (1) You will be expected to use cursive (in pen) for everything in the adult world
    (2) You won't have a calculator in your pocket at all times when you need to do a quick calculation

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    1. The biggest lie teachers ever told me was that there was this thing called, "The Real World"!

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  21. They don't even teach PRINTING in our school district. Not formally, as in "here is how you make the letter "Aa", practice". Students are expected to just pick it up however they can (same with how to hold a pencil...VERY FEW students in my child's class hold a pen correctly, and form letters in any standard way.)

    It's good for brain development to use a pencil. Not everything is done with a digital format, and somethings just work better with a pen and paper.

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  22. Ok, so let's say civilization/electrical power grid were to permanently fail.. then where will you be with your "digital encryption keys"? But then again, if civilization fails, I guess cursive writing will be the least of our worries. However, I think it's backwards and wrong to not teach kids how to write and only type.

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  23. Frenchman here, under 30, though I am not sure it changes much
    Cursive, though most often referred to as "écriture attachée" (joined-up writing)
    is one of the basics.
    While in preschool in France, you will use print, but because it is easier to trace individual letters. From Primary school on, you are expected to use cursive. I do like writing words in one go. Though the Ts have to be crossed and Is dotted, but that is very quick too.
    One thing I noticed while speaking with foreign friend is that our writing paper is quite different. Our standard is the "large squares". 8mm by 8mm, but also lined, every 2mm, making it easier to write said cursive. Most letters are only one line high, but the t is two lines high, while capitals and letters with loops on top are three lines high.
    http://www.toutallantvert.com/pt/1297_DSCF2068.JPG.thumb_600x603_8c2e8cb66167ad929ac0f9b8e52d804e.jpg

    Then again, I know many people whose handwriting is bordering on illegible, and who look at mine in disbelief. I heard "How did you do that?" too many times for comfort.
    It can be a problem, as quite often covering letters are supposed to be handwritten. (And there aren't any red or green squiggles under the spelling or grammar mistakes! You have to check in dictionaries!)
    I don't write as much as I once did, what with those fancy computers everywhere, but when I need to make a lists, write down an idea or anything important, I do like paper. It doesn't require batteries, and it's fast.

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  24. Dutchman here. I never learned anything else than cursive.

    Don't understand why Americans teach their kids to write like a typewriter. It's just ugly. And worse. It's taught poorly. A lot of people can barely write at all.

    It seems writing is a basic skill that should be taught in school.

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  25. I use cursive every day for my morning journaling sessions (i.e. Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages"). The physical act of moving my pencil across the paper connects with/ enhances/enlivens my thought processes in ways tapping on a keyboard just can't touch. There are positive reasons to learn things other than just "the company you eventually work for will want you to have this skill."

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    1. I regularly write in a notebook and I never learned cursive, in school or otherwise. I write in standard block text similar to a keyboard. It has never dissuaded me from ever wanting to physically write. So cursive is not a requirement for journaling or any other physical writing. You tend to use and prefer what you learned, that's all.

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  26. Montessori teaches cursive before printing, as the initial way to learn to write. Milwaukee, WI now has 8 public Montessori schools, with an eventual goal of making all the elementary schools Montessori.

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  27. It all depends. Functionally? Cursive is, let's face it, an antique. I can print, and certainly type, much faster than I can write in cursive, and I'm old enough to have had cursive writing as THE required way to learn to write throughout elementary school. Functionally, it's useless in the modern world, and while I don't like that, I do recognize it as a fact.

    That being said, I do think that cursive writing should be preserved, in the same way that we think about calligraphy and other forms of attractive writing. Things like that should be preserved and taught... but as an option, not as a requirement. As has been pointed out, American schools are already horrifically underfunded and overworked; removing cursive from the curriculum would save both time and money that could be far better used for more intrinsically important things. Like actually paying teachers a proper wage. Or making sure that our children actually learn, instead of just regurgitating data then forgetting it. You know, like literally the entire rest of the world does... or at least, the 16 other countries out of 34 who are ranked in the OECD. We're average at best, and well below average at worst, and that needs to change.

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  28. Swiss primary school teacher here; after twenty years of debate we finally did away with teaching cursive in the German speaking parts of Switzerland in favor of an in-between: while first graders used to learn the classic Roman Letters and were taught a second, quite extreme form of cursive in second grade - a form of cursive with many loops and compulsory connection strokes to the next letter - we now teach a more organic version of the Roman Letters in first Grade. Second and third graders are now taught various ways to join letters in a word, i.e. they develop a personal handwriting from the script they learned in first grade rather than learning a second set of letter shapes. In my view a much better way of producing fluency in writing.

    How it used to be: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schweizer_Schulschrift.jpg
    How it is now (development of personal handwriting from 1. to 6. grade: https://www.basisschrift.ch/aufbau-und-didaktik

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    1. It's nice to hear the side of the equation after cursive is officially removed from the program and the results. Thank you for your perspective.

      I seem to be the only person in the United States that never learned it in school (due to being bounced back and forth between different programs). Personally, it's been little loss for me, even in a country where everyone writes by hand in cursive. So I think a transition away from it would be relatively painless here.

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  29. As Kay Shapiro commented above, I use cursive in my almost daily journal writing. I have been keeping a journal since my senior year of high school, every day for a few decades, then 5 to 6 days a weeks. Writing cursive allows an almost stream of thought means of journaling, with nary a pause required. When my son came home in the early 90s, I tried keeping the journal on a word processor, but the found the spell checking and such to be extremely distracting. To put it simply, my writing sucks unless writing in cursive.

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    1. Actually, you're referring to the difference between handwriting and typing on a computer; it has nothing to do with cursive. I notice the same difference you are referring to even though I don't write in cursive. It's the lack of distractions that make the difference, not the writing script you're using.

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  30. No one says that you can't teach your own children cursive, if you feel strongly about it. But it's a time-consuming process that's mostly learned through repetition, so it's rather a waste of school-hours. As to the "we won't know how to read our historic documents" claim -- it's an easy enough specialized skill to pick up if you have the motivation and need. I'm able to puzzle out the meaning of the words in 16th and 17th century documents -- although I'm not able to write in that calligraphic form.

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  31. The comments here are interesting. Many indicate that teaching cursive is a waste of time. Even the post itself asks, "what do we replace/ignore in elementary schools to make the time available?" The question is not answered, I note. What did replace the time previously used to teach cursive? I just retired after 33 years teaching middle school, mostly math, but also reading and History. I have not noticed any increase in the math or reading skills of the majority of students coming to me from elementary school. Nor do most students have a basic background in History. Computer skills are lacking in the area of creating/editing/formatting documents, using a spreadsheet, and integrating pictures and links into their work. At the same time, we are expected to introduce the use of primary sources in the teaching of History. Of course, most of these are written in cursive, which very few students can read.

    Yes, you can teach your children cursive, as we taught our children (both were homeschooled for 12 years). Parents can also teach (or at least reinforce what is taught in school) their own children to read, to use basic math functions, the foundations of freedom and democracy, evolution, etc. But most parents don't, so the schools spend time on these things.

    It's sad that education today seems to be narrowed to what is "functional." Not everything that we learn needs to be an answer to the age old question, "Why do I need to know this?" You pretty much learn everything you "need" to know in elementary school. What happened to curiosity and knowledge of how things work outside of your area of expertise?

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  32. Just wanted to add that my comment above is not meant to be a complaint about elementary school teachers. I was thinking of the CCR movement and the over-the-top testing that leads to less time to teach.

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    1. "Standardized" testing is the death of real education in the United States. In addition to the basic problems of trying to boil education down into multiple choice questions, you have half of the people involved in the process that have a vested interest in having public schools fail.

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  33. So strange seeing my comments from six years ago.

    For funding, a lot of the time that would have been committed to cursive has now been eaten up pre-testing, pre-pre-testing and pre-pre-pre-testing (you think I'm kidding; I'm not) for standardized tests. Since the vast majority of a school district's funding are tied to the tests, almost all of their focus are on them and anything that isn't on the test is sacrificed. Cursive was an easy victim as the majority of people will not complain about the loss and few of the ones that will complain will be very vocal about it and good luck finding a congresscritter to back someone that does complain loudly. So district administrators are not going to sweat the loss even though quite a few teachers might mourn it.

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  34. I had been taught cursive and had used it all the way through high school. In the fall of 1980, when I started college (or "university" in the UK), one day I just switched to printing, and never looked back. There were absolutely no consequences for doing this in my (handwritten blue-book) exams and none for anything else I submitted - just no consequences whatsoever. I remember this switch with some bemusement, because I have no idea why I did it. It was a few days or weeks into the term. However, the longer I print, the more my print looks like quasi-cursive. I recognize that people feel strongly about this, but honestly, I've seen no consequences since. And as for learning to read old documents ... the only people who will be concerned with this will be historians, and there is already a subset of skills called "paleography," or the deciphering of old handwriting, which historians have to learn and which are time-, place-, and group-specific. As the Wikipedia entry on paleography says, writing systems change constantly. That's what we're seeing with cursive.

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  35. Because a child's brain can only hold so much?
    Just lazy american-ism. There are kids in those schools learning a whole new language. Many asian languages have multiple character sets.

    Writing by hand is WAY better for note taking and memory retention.

    I use cursive frequently since I got a nice fountain pen.

    And the but only specialists or paleographers will need it? How about reading grandma's salacious love letters?


    There's still need and reason for cursive.

    Case in point: we had a student fail an organic chemistry test a few years back, because she couldn't read cursive and the test was hand written.

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