The way Louise Cassar found out that her children wouldn’t be learning cursive writing at school is pretty ironic — she got a handwritten note. “In my daughter’s agenda book, I wrote a note to her teacher, asking when students would start learning cursive. She responded with a quick sentence explaining that it had been removed from the curriculum,” the mom of three in London, Ont., says. “I thought, ‘If you can’t write it, how could you possibly read it? What about wedding invitations? Old letters you find in the attic from your grandfather? This is going to result in an entire generation of cursive illiterates.'”
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Not only was Cassar surprised by the news, but so was her eldest daughter, Alyssa, then in grade five. “She couldn’t wait to learn to write her name in the same flowing script I use, and now the school wasn’t going to teach it.” Kids are using keyboards and tablets earlier than ever before, and they’re not necessarily focusing on writing by hand as a way to convey ideas. With new technologies showing up in classrooms every day (iPads and Smart Boards are supplanting workbooks and chalkboards), Cassar says it wouldn’t surprise her if signatures were soon replaced with bio scans, and if kids start dictating text out loud, Siri-style (complete with auto-correct), instead of learning to write with pen and paper. “Advances in technology shouldn’t mean that writing isn’t a crucial stepping stone in basic communication,” she says.
Government decision makers in Ontario and Quebec (and in about 45 states south of the border) have already pulled cursive as a learning expectation from the curriculum. (Prior to 2006 in Ontario, it was listed in the grades three and four language syllabus.) And Quebec’s ministry of education now says kids in elementary school can choose the ways in which they convey their ideas when working on assignments — it’s not mandatory for kids to know how to write in script. So far, just Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island’s ministries of education have stated definitively that there are no plans to remove cursive from their schools.
Some parents — myself included — aren’t pleased that their kids will have to learn penmanship on their own time. “It’s utterly wrong that cursive writing has been taken out of the curriculum in our school board,” says Halifax nurse and mom-of-two Cheryl Lavoie. She predicts that school boards elsewhere in Nova Scotia will follow suit. Lavoie’s daughter Noelle, 11, is in the top of her grade-five class in French immersion, but she can’t read her mom’s handwriting. “I pay attention to the clarity of my writing because it is important to my job. Pharmacists and nurses have to be able to read prescriptions and physicians’ orders, and it’s not always easy,” says Lavoie. “We’re still not a paperless society. Not 100 percent of documents are typed out. Writing still happens, and it still needs to be taught and understood. And sadly, my daughter doesn’t seem interested in it now.”
In the past decade, several studies have identified the merits of teaching school-agers the skill of joining letters together with fast strokes. Cursive enhances fine-motor skills, while composing on paper has been found to assist with memory and recall, develop thinking strategies, expand vocabulary and boost creativity. One study at the University of Washington in Seattle found that kids in grades two, four and six who practised writing by hand instead of typing used more words, wrote quicker and expressed more ideas than they did using a keyboard. Research from the University of Indiana using functional magnetic resonance imaging has revealed that handwriting better engages the brain than simply looking at typed characters on a computer screen.
“The argument is that keyboarding is more relevant to today’s children. But I think it’s helpful to have some sort of legible handwriting that is quick for recording thoughts,” says Marilyn Chapman, a professor of language and literacy education and the director of the Institute for Early Childhood Education and Research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The problem? “Today, we cannot justify spending a lot of time on picture-perfect cursive because there have been so many other things added to the curriculum, such as anti-bullying, critical thinking and self-regulation.”
Andrew Campbell, a grade four-five teacher in Brantford, Ont., concurs. While he rarely uses cursive (he describes his own handwriting as “the chicken scratch I use for my signature,”) he agrees that learning it is an important skill. But he just doesn’t have the time to teach it. “There are 78 separate learning expectations in the public school grade-five language curriculum I use — almost two for every week of school — and teaching cursive isn’t one of them. We cannot add new skills and expect students to master them, plus all the traditional skills as well. Something has to give,— he says.
If you’re a parent of a young child who isn’t in school yet, you may not know that today’s students are already using digital methods (ones that didn’t exist when you were a kid) to submit their work. Depending on your school board, as well as teacher preferences, some elementary students can submit their homework using online tools, like Dropbox.com, Moodle.org or Google Docs, or they hand in book reports via teachers’ websites or on USB drives. None of these modern-day ways to complete the assignment involve cursive writing, which makes it even harder for kids to practise the skill.
“If students can easily use cursive effectively, that’s great, but spending a lot of time on its instruction isn’t a wise investment. In the hierarchy of crucial 21st-century skills, developing creativity, initiative and problem solving are more important than learning to write in cursive,” says Campbell.
Many parents and educators are on the same page as Campbell — the penmanship of the iGeneration just isn’t on their list of education priorities. Marcie Sharp, mom to Jake, 7, and Robin, 4, in Shetland, Ont., doesn’t see the need for her kids to learn it in school, and, more importantly, she’d rather her kids’ teachers — some of whom use iPads in their classrooms — spend time working on other language skills, like spelling and grammar. “In an ideal education system, if there was time to fit in an hour of cursive a week, that would be wonderful,” she says. “I would also love extra time for teaching kids how to tell time, how to perform basic math equations without a calculator, and how to construct a sentence that doesn’t look like it came from a text: ‘CUL8R K? THX.’ So cut out the cursive…big deal. It’s a lovely skill, but a parent could teach it at home with the help of some handy dandy ‘found on Pinterest’ practise sheets.”
Our cursive style, I learned, is also particular to North America. There are many languages that don’t have a form of cursive at all, making it particularly difficult for ESL students to catch up. According to the Many Roots Many Voices: Supporting English language learners in every classroom guide for Ontario educators, “beginning English-language learners whose first languages do not use the Roman alphabet cannot be expected to recognize, read or write in cursive script.” The guide suggests that teachers print when giving students written feedback on their work.
The MacLean Method of Handwriting, developed and popularized by Canadian H. B. MacLean (born in PEI, MacLean was a teacher in Victoria from the 1920s to the 1960s), has been the standard method taught across the country and in the US since its inception. This method includes the rounded, swirl-like looping letters that you might use today when jotting down your grocery list or signing field-trip permission slips. “In many countries, such as the United Kingdom and others throughout Europe, children learn to ‘link up’ printed letters — a form of cursive italic script,” says Chapman, the UBC professor. “It’s much easier to learn than our cursive, and considered readable around the world.” She adds that some of the MacLean Method capital letters, for example, are not recognized overseas.
That said, others argue that script may actually be easier to master than most people think. “Cursive is more fluent than printing, it requires less motor planning, and is considered a better method for those with coordination challenges,” says Ronit Kabazo, a registered paediatric occupational therapist in Vancouver who works one-on-one with children who need extra help on their gross and fine-motor skills, and sensory processing. “I have found that using as many senses as possible during the learning process, and making it a fun and engaging process, increases the likelihood that the child will acquire a positive attitude toward handwriting. He’ll learn faster and retain what he has learned. We use the sense of touch and kinesthetic sense to feel the letters. We use verbal cues as we form the letters, and visual cues to help align the letters within the writing lines.”
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If imparting these skills is important to you — or if you just want your child to be able to read Great-Aunt Bea’s birthday cards — there are other ways to go about it, including great apps for tablets and smartphones. “ABCs Tracing Cursive Letters” and “Cursive Writing lHD” walk kids through cursive writing using a stylus to trace the letters instead of a pencil.
As for Cassar, she’s been using a mix of apps and old-school methods for Alyssa, now in grade eight, to learn elegant, rounded script. “We took it upon ourselves to buy workbooks so she would have the tools to learn it at home. She’s the only one of her friends who can sign her name. And that’s a shame.”
A version of this article appeared in our December 2013 issue with the headline “Going off script,” pp. 68-70.