Linda Boissinot’s oldest son, Zachary, really struggled to learn cursive writing. “We tried a number of activities to promote fine-motor skills, but they didn’t seem to translate to better writing. Eventually, we gave up and used the computer more and more.” By the time he entered grade nine, it didn’t seem to matter much — the teachers generally preferred assignments printed from a computer anyway.
“If we were doing it over again, though, we would have spent far less time and energy on forcing this skill,” says Boissinot.
Is cursive writing dead?
Now that most communication and “writing” is done via keyboard and screen, do kids really need to learn handwriting? Some would say no — and certainly many kids feel it’s unnecessary.
But Kitty Burns Florey, author of Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, disagrees. She cites research by Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington in Seattle that found young children write better by hand than when using a keyboard: They wrote more quickly, used more words, and incorporated more ideas. Other researchers at Indiana University have used MRI technology to show that children who are writing letters have more enhanced neural activity in their brains, compared to children who are simply looking at letters.
All the same, Florey says, “I’m not really in favour of cursive writing per se. What I think is that kids need to learn to write quickly and legibly, and cursive is usually faster than printing by hand. I think the best kind of handwriting to teach is italic script because it doesn’t have a lot of flourishes.” The italic script of today is based on a style of writing developed in Renaissance Italy to be quick and easy to write. One website with examples of current italic styles is handwritingsuccess.com.
Uschi Leslie agrees that the type of cursive taught makes a difference. She was living in Germany when her two older children reached school age, and recalls they first learned to print in capital letters, then started cursive writing shortly after. “The cursive script they learned had fewer loops and decorations than the one I’d learned as a child,” she says. “They had their textbooks and worksheets written in cursive as well.” Both picked it up fairly easily.
Still required in school
She was really surprised after moving to Canada to see that the style taught in grade three was quite different — “way more loops and swings and decorations, and some letters, like the capital I and capital G were almost unrecognizable to me at first. Plus, I noticed that only a few adults actually used cursive writing — most people printed all the time, but because they printed so quickly, the text quite often was very hard to decipher.”
Brain development aside, is learning handwriting really necessary? “You’d think that we don’t need it in today’s world,” says Florey, “but there are still many situations where you need to be able to write and have your writing be read. There are plenty of high school and university classrooms where students are required to take notes by hand.” She points out that after Hurricane Katrina, when there was no electricity in the hospitals, nurses and staff had to keep records by hand. “They ran into real problems because people couldn’t read what the previous person had written.”
Florey also believes there is intrinsic value in handwriting. “Good handwriting is beautiful, and it’s been part of human tradition for thousands of years. I think it’s not a good idea to just give it up.”
Help your child learn to write
How can you help a reluctant cursive writer?
Reinforce handwriting beyond the classroom, says Florey. Write notes to your child and encourage her to write back to you. If you do scrapbooking, perhaps your child could write some of the descriptive text on the scrapbooked pages.
Write with different materials to help your child learn to write smoothly. Let him write his name with shaving cream or whipped cream from a spray can, or use a sparkler to write letters in the air. Drag out those old fingerpaints and use fingers to form the letters.
Show your child a variety of handwriting styles, beyond what is taught in school. Perhaps the italic script that Florey prefers will seem easier for your child. An artistic child might enjoy learning calligraphy or handwriting with more flourishes. (Yes, in class he’ll need to form the letters the way the teacher wants, but knowing other options might inspire him to master this skill.)
Work on your own handwriting alongside your child. Florey says that in the process of writing the book, she transformed her own writing from a barely legible scribble to a neat but still fast italic hand. Your interest in writing legibly lets your child know you value the skill.
In the time of smartphones and iPads, cursive writing may seem old-fashioned, but Florey says that electronics will never totally replace pen and paper. “It’s not about having one or the other,” adds Florey. “We need both the skills of handwriting and the skills of keyboarding.”
Making handwriting fun
Check out these options for cursive writing practice and fun activities: