Nov 19, 2012

Posted by in Culture | 4 Comments

Miscellany 44: Is Cursive Dead? And Other Bookish Thoughts

Should we stop teaching cursive to children? It seems that many schools have already stopped, citing typing as more important.

This is a bad idea, and I say this not because I am nostalgic for pre-computer days, or dislike technology. I write my poetry on an iPad, not by hand, for instance, and do all my writing directly on the computer. Here’s why we still need to teach kids cursive:

1. Cursive is much faster and easier to write than printing, which matters when one is taking notes in class, or brainstorming, or drafting.

1.5. Good cursive is aesthetically pleasing. There is so much ugliness and depressing utilitarianism in the world already. Why not give our kids the gift of knowing they can produce good handwriting? It is a genuine skill, not a fake trophy-for-everyone thing.

2. Writing by hand engages the whole body in a way that typing doesn’t, so taking notes by hand is actually a good learning strategy (kinesthetic learning). It is also a good drafting / outlining strategy because it engages different parts of the brain, and can get you past writer’s block. Being able to write easily, quickly, and legibly matters.

3. Writing by hand means that one can write anywhere, anytime. A Moleskin notebook and a pencil can go in my coat pocket wherever I go…and indeed I always travel with a tiny notebook. Ideas, thoughts, directions, lists…always accessible with no need for an electronic device and no need to recharge the battery.

Incidentally, this also levels the playing field economically: why should only the kids who can afford computers and smartphones be able to develop their thoughts easily and comfortably into good prose and poetry? Until recently all the great novels were drafted by hand, anyway.

4. Writing by hand helps teach spelling (as you learn to shape the word), hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills.

5. We need not worry that kids are missing out on learning to type. A single course in typing will provide that skill. It is easy to learn.

Teaching kids to write in cursive is another example of discipline that makes them more free. If we ‘free’ them from this skill now, they are more firmly chained to their iPhones and iPads and other gadgets… If we help them with the discipline of writing now, they are free to use that whole constellation of skills in many different ways later on.

Now a few interesting thoughts on books, reading, and writing…

This is an interesting piece on the role of the intuition in studying a medieval manuscript. It’s also a great example of the way that deep engagement with a subject (or activity) involves a total mindfulness, a holistic awareness of what is before you.

Here is Alan Jacobs on how to read a book – a nice short introduction to the ideas he develops more fully (and engagingly) in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

John Mark Reynolds says: it’s ok to be bad at art; do it anyway.

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  1. John Moore says:

    I don’t understand what you mean by #2. Typing engages both hands whereas writing by hand is mostly just the one. Typing uses all the fingers whereas a pencil mostly just uses thumb and two fingers.

    I think #4 is also wrong because when you type in a word processor, it immediately tells you when you’ve misspelled something, by showing a squiggly red underline. It’s true that writing by hand teaches you the shape of the word better, but typing teaches you a sequence of finger movements, and that’s analogous.

    • Holly Ordway says:


      #2 is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. What I’m thinking of is that there is a direct connection between mind-hand-paper that is different from the mind-hand-keyboard-screen connection. There are studies that show that people retain more information when they take notes by hand than typing, and it’s probably because the hand actually shapes the letters in writing, thus reinforcing the content, whereas in typing the brain just translates the typing as random finger taps rather than traced-out words. (Recopying notes is a recommended study habit for exactly this reason).

      For #4, I think that writing by hand (especially for the young) really forces one to look at the contents of a word – to see that, say, ‘good’ is different from ‘gold’. I doubt that anyone remembers the shape of words by the sequence of finger movements to type. It’s true that looking at words that are flagged as misspelled might help teach the spelling, but now that autocorrect/predictive spelling is so pervasive I think that will soon pass. For example, I mistyped about five words in the past sentence (I’m typing on my iPad) and the computer immediately corrected it. This has an impact on reading comprehension as well. I’ve noticed that my 18-to-20-year-old students have extreme difficulty in pronouncing any word they’re not very familiar with, and their spelling is appalling – and not just in difficult words, either, but in everyday ones. I suspect that they’re simply not used to paying attention to the arrangements of letters in a word.

      Of course, problems with spelling have causes much more extensive than the shift to typing, if indeed that’s a cause at all (I’m speculating here, after all.)

  2. Holly,

    I’m glad to see someone defending both writing by hand (in general), and cursive (specifically). I actually agree with #2 and (for me at least) it’s the best reason for using cursive.

    I still take notes using a strategy that I learned 25 years ago that depends on being able to think while I write and getting my thoughts directly down on paper without using the added filter of thinking about where my figures are on the keyboard. And I am still (in general) getting better grades than the students that are either typing their notes directly into their computers or recording the lectures.

    There is truly something about using both body and brain and engaging all the senses-especially when taking notes-that helps me retain the information better.

  3. I wonder how many of the handwriters who still exist are still writing in cursive …

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