Category Archives: Handwriting

The Missing Amenity

ilarge-woman-writing-letter

Over the holidays we had occasion to spend a couple of nights in a hotel, something we hadn’t done for awhile.

Of course we were not at all surprised to find the huge TV, the little ihome clock radio, the microwave, the refrigerator, the coffee maker, the iron , the ironing board, the hair dryer, the illuminated magnifying mirror (I could have done without that), and various lotions, gels, soap, and shampoo. And a note left on the vanity informed us that the management would be happy to supply a toothbrush, or comb if we had forgotten to pack those items. The safe in the closet, I’ll admit, was a bit of a surprise.

I wondered if there might still be a Gideon Bible hidden somewhere. I opened the drawer of the night stand and sure enough! There it was. Since it was almost Christmas, I read the Christmas story as told by Matthew. That was nice.

However even with this superfluity of amenities, there was something missing—NO STATIONERY! And we know why, don’t we? Because nobody writes handwritten notes or letters any more.

 Or do they?

waldorf-stationeryI decided to ask Google about hotel stationery. (Google knows everything.) It seems that while many hotels have stopped offering it, some— mostly high end— hotels still do. In fact there is a luxury hotel in California where complimentary stationery is embossed with the guest’s name! Actually, I think that’s a bit much.

I realize that just because the hotel offers stationery does’t mean that guests use it. Nevertheless, the fact that high end hotels still provide it seems to support a notion I have had for awhile.  That is, that the handwritten note is becoming a status marker. High end parents who want their children to appear refined and well educated may see to it that their children write thank you notes by hand. They may even insist that the kids learn to write a cursive hand, even if they have to hire a tutor. Privileged children then may learn a skill that used to be taught to all children, thus increasing the social divide. This would not be progress. mlk

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The Cursive Handwriting Debate is Not Over—Not Yet!

ballpointpen_(1)_360_360_90Yesterday I received two handwritten missives in my mail, both written in cursive. One was from my doctor, explaining the results of recent routine blood tests and wishing me a pleasant weekend. The other, a brief and lovely message from a friend who recently visited, thanking me for a pleasant time.

And not too long ago, I had a lively conversation with a stranger on the bus who happened to notice I was doing some editing with a fountain pen. He allowed that he loved writing with fountain pens, in fact collected them. I was sorry when we came to his stop.

Personal experience aside— it seems to me that resistance to abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting is growing.

Some teachers say that in this technological era, being able to write in cursive is an unnecessary skill.  What kids are going to need in the future is skill in keyboarding, and they don’t have time to spend on teaching both handwriting and keyboarding. That’s the good reason they give for their opposition. I suspect the real reason is that the better kids are at keyboarding, the better they will do on the tests that are mandated by the common core. In some school districts, children as young as eight years old have to be able to drag and drop and type answers on a keyboard so that they can take tests mandated by the core—tests that as far as I can see benefit no one except the those involved in the test industry. Certainly they don’t benefit the third grader who has squirmed and struggled answering questions that are widely seen as too difficult.

Another real reason is that many teachers themselves do not write in cursive and so feel unable to teach it.

Unfortunately proponents do not put forth very strong arguments. One of their favorites is that if kids can’t read cursive, they won’t be able to read our founding documents. Who in the world reads founding documents in the original copperplate? Have you ever? Neither have I; neither have those making this argument. If that were the primary reason kids need to learn to write cursive, proponents of teaching it would lose hands down.

The strongest arguments for teaching of cursive comes from neurological research. And these are powerful arguments. Pity they are not advanced more often.

 

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Let’s Just Call It Handwriting

hands

BACKGROUND

The Tennessee and South Carolina legislatures are now considering bills that would require the teaching of cursive handwriting in their public schools. If this legislation passes, these states will join seven others—Florida, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California— where the teaching of cursive is now either required by law or has been adopted by the State Board of Education to supplement the Common Core standards.

 These standards are part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Federal initiative that specifies learning outcomes and rewards states that test students for achievement of these outcomes. The standards were written by a group of governors, state education leaders and other experts. They do not include the teaching of handwriting.

 The state of Indiana, one of the first of forty-five states to adopt the standards, has just withdrawn from Common Core. Legislation signed by the governor Monday, March 24, requires the Board of Education to create its own goals by July 1. It will be interesting to learn whether those goals include the teaching of handwriting and whether other states follow Indiana’s lead in dumping Common Core in favor of locally controlled education.

WHAT THE HANDWRITING DEBATE IS ABOUT

Since Common Core does not specify cursive writing as a goal, many schools have stopped teaching handwriting past the second grade. Those who are in favor of dropping the teaching of “cursive” believe that manuscript printing should be taught in grades 1 and 2, but do not see the point of continuing instruction and practice of handwriting beginning in grade 3 because in the digital age, writing by hand is seldom necessary and when it is necessary, the printing learned in first and second grade will do. Classroom time should be used in teaching keyboarding,

Seriously! That seems to be their argument: that proficiency in writing rapidly and legibly by hand be dropped as a pedagogical goal at age 8.  They apparently believe that no further instruction or practice or effort to acquire a controlled hand is necessary after age 8, when neural connections are still fragile.  Age 8!

 THE QUESTION WE SHOULD BE ASKING

 “Should we be teaching handwriting—of any kind—past the second grade”? Let’s just call it handwriting or longhand. Whether it is writing with loops or no loops, written vertically or slanted, with every letter joined or just some letters joined really makes no difference. What we need to ask is this question: Are there benefits to learning and practicing writing by hand as opposed to keyboarding, and in practicing that skill throughout one’s academic career?

THE ANSWER IS YES!

Strangely, the most potent argument in favor of offering instruction and requiring the practice of handwriting throughout one’s academic career is very seldom offered.

It has to do with the relation of the hand to the brain. The feedback we get from forming the shapes of letters with our hand and focusing on the tip of the pen is quite different from the percussive strokes we make when typing on a keyboard, where the letters come ready made, where there is no distinction from the demands made in forming one letter vs. another, and the focus constantly shifts from the keyboard to the screen.

SO WHAT?

Neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay of the University of Marseille and Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger (Norway) have examined a wealth of research that deals with the significance of the differences between typing and writing by hand.(If you wish to read the article by Velay and Mangen summarizing the specific studies, here’s the link.)

IN BRIEF:

A growing body of evidence in various scientific fields shows that the way we move our body (our hand, for example) and engage our senses (visual, tactile, kinesthetic, sound) plays an important role in learning and cognitive development.

In discussing how we teach writing, it is important to take this concept of “embodied cognition” into account. We generally tend to overemphasize the visual and ignore what is known as “haptics,” the way we learn and communicate by touch.

Different parts of the brain light up on an MRI when writing by hand and when typing. Some of these studies suggest that the challenge of learning to form letters by hand results in more fluency in speaking and reading as well.

Also the experience many of us have of being better able to memorize material if we write it down by hand is born out by the research.

When writing on a keyboard, attention oscillates between the screen and the keyboard and we constantly interrupt our thoughts to correct what we have written. When writing by hand, what one researcher has dubbed a “kinetic melody” is eventually achieved, when we no longer need to attend to letter formation and the writing seems to flow as the words pass through the hand. When this is achieved, we seldom stop to make corrections, there is an uninterrupted connection of our thoughts, and creativity is facilitated.

BOTTOM LINE:

Evidence suggests that writing by hand facilitates fluency in reading and speaking, ability to memorize and to think creatively. But it is not necessary to abandon the teaching of keyboarding in favor of handwriting. Children can and should learn to do both. For a century and a half millions of people learned to use the QWERTY keyboard and to write a legible hand as well. You would think that those who oppose the teaching of  handwriting past second grade never heard of the typewriter.

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The Cursive Handwriting Debate Cries Out for a Definition of Terms

"The Hand," Oil on Canvas, Herbert Knapp

“The Hand,” Oil on Canvas, Herbert Knapp

Since this is National Handwriting Day, it seems like a good time to talk about whether or not we should teach cursive handwriting in elementary school. Almost everyone engaged in the debate, whether pro or con, assumes that a “cursive” handwriting style is one in which all letters are joined with swoops and festooned with loops. It is true that this is what millions of kids in U.S. schools have been taught over the years. The variation of looped cursive I was taught (the Palmer Method) looks like this:

Looped Cursive handwriting

Looped Cursive

But “cursive” simply means a “running” hand, in which pen lifts are minimized.  Fortunately, there is a preferable cursive alternative to the familiar looped varieties. For the past several weeks, I have been teaching myself cursive Italic handwriting with the aid of a workbook. This is the system of handwriting that is taught in European schools and in some private and US public schools as well. It is not a new idea, by any means. Italic handwriting has its roots in the Renaissance.  Sometimes the old ways are the best, in this case really old.

There are no loops in Italic handwriting, and not all letter combinations are joined. Yet cursive Italic provides the writer with the means of writing rapidly and consistently.

Italic Cursive handwriting

Italic Cursive

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Italic is that children transition from print to cursive without having to learn a whole new set of letter forms, as they do with a looped cursive hand. Poor little kids. Just when they are getting pretty good at printing, we start all over, usually in third grade, which requires them essentially to unlearn what they ‘ve been doing and learn something entirely different. It’s no wonder that so many opponents of “cursive” are so vehement in their opposition.The printed form that precedes looped cursive involves several pen strokes and is written with the paper held vertically. Sometimes called “ball and stick,” it looks like this:

Ball and Stick handwriting

Ball and Stick

The printed form of Italic, on the other hand, is slightly slanted, just like the cursive form, and many of the letters are formed with only one stroke of the pen. The transition to the cursive form of Italic occurs in second grade when children are taught to join the letter forms they already know. This is printed Italic:

Print Italic handwriting

Print Italic

But why teach cursive handwriting at all? Do we really need it?

This is the argument opponents of cursive handwriting make: They say we don’t need to write by hand because nowadays we almost always communicate written language with the aid of an electronic device.  When we need to communicate by hand, we can just print. We should not waste class time teaching something we don’t  need.

But that is a very narrow definition of “need.” There is some evidence that the fine muscular control demanded of those learning to write rapidly and continuously by hand yields benefits far beyond the ability to produce a grocery list.There is apparently a vital connection between the brain and the hand that comes into play when one writes connecting letters. I think that this is where the most powerful argument for retaining cursive handwriting in the classroom resides.

There is no doubt that the writing of cursive requires different, more complex movements than tapping a keyboard or printing unconnected letters. The personal experience of those of us who write a lot by hand and the experience of many teachers suggest that the ability to write a flowing hand facilitates creativity, helps memory and promotes learning.

So I say let’s get rid of the wasteful practice of teaching ball and stick printing , drop the loop-de-loop form of cursive that has given so many people fits, and introduce a more efficient, simpler way of teaching kids to connect their letters and eventually develop a mature, legible, and graceful cursive hand.

I intend to return to this subject in future posts. I am particularly interested in finding out what research has been done on the brain/hand connection and how it might influence our opinion about the need for cursive writing. If you’d like to follow along, type your email in the “follow” box and you will receive all future posts by email. Or you can bookmark this site and check in from time to time.

And I’d love to hear your ideas about cursive in our schools. Just leave your comment below. For more on cursive handwriting, type the word “cursive” in the search box.

The workbook I am using to learn Italic is Write Now by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay. It is designed for the use of adults who want to improve their handwriting.

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Rachel Jeantel Isn’t the Only One Who Can’t Read Cursive

"I don't read cursive."

“I don’t read cursive.”

We should not have been surprised when the star witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial, a 19 year old high school graduate, couldn’t read a letter handed to her by the defense attorney because, as she explained, “I don’t read cursive.”  For many young people, cursive handwriting might as well be hieroglyphics. High school teachers say they no longer write in cursive on the board or on student papers because  their students can’t read it. The customer rep at my bank recently told me that she has to print when she writes a note to the tellers.

Where The Teaching of Cursive Stands  The new Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states, make the teaching of handwriting optional, and sentiment for dropping it altogether is widespread. To their credit, five State Boards of Education—Alabama, Massachusetts, Georgia, California, and Kansas—have included cursive in the standards for their schools, and the North Carolina legislature has actually passed a law requiring the teaching of cursive.

As far as I know, nobody is recommending that we not teach any form of handwriting at all. Typically manuscript printing or what is known as “ball-and-stick” is taught in first (sometimes kindergarten) through second grade. Cursive has then been taught in third though fourth grade. It should be said here that there are different forms of cursive writing. What most people think of as cursive is whatever they themselves were taught, which in the United States is probably a form of what might be called “looped or conventional cursive.” An alternative, Italic cursive, has no loops, is not preceded by ball-and-stick printing, but printed letters that are like the cursive form but unconnected. Many people assume that ball-and-stick, because it looks like print in books, helps children learn to read. 

But What About That? Ball-and-stick was first introduced in the New York City school system in 1922 by Marjorie Wise, a reading specialist. Before then, children just learned cursive from the beginning. Wise herself eventually recognized that there are drawbacks to ball and stick, but by then it had caught on throughout the United States and we were stuck with it. Actually because of the fluid left-to-right movement of cursive and the fact that spaces come between words, not individual letters, it is more helpful to the beginning reader than ball-and-stick.

But why teach cursive at all? In ways not yet fully understood, being able to write fluently and rapidly in a running hand actually helps the brain learn how to work more efficiently. Research suggests that cursive facilitates creativity, helps memory, and gives kids a powerful tool  for learning. What is unique about cursive is the fluidity of movement, which does not happen when one has to lift the pen between every letter or when one is tapping on a keyboard.

Where do we go from here? I’m afraid that saving cursive depends on more neuroscientific research. Only that will convince many teachers and parents that there are benefits to be had from knowing how to write fluently in a running hand that no other form of written communication offers. It will take time, but I’m convinced that will happen. Meanwhile it seems we will be turning out high school graduates who cannot sign their names.

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If I Were Curriculum Queen, Here’s What I’d Do

I can’t speak to math, science or geography, only to say that I think that by the time kids enter high school, they should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide without using a calculator, know that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, and be able to find Europe on a map.

But when it comes to the “language arts,” I have some more definite ideas. Here’s one of them:

I’d require that cursive hand writing be taught beginning in third grade. By fifth grade, students would begin each school day by writing independently for ten or fifteen minutes in a spiral bound journal, which would be kept in the classroom. They could write anything at all that they wanted, but because some students can’t think of a thing to say when faced with a blank page, on the chalkboard, I’d put sayings, proverbs, spelling tips, that they could copy or sentences to complete to get them started. I’d circulate among them, correcting any bad habits of letter formation.

I’d teach keyboarding in the second semester of the fifth grade, and from then on keyboarding and cursive writing would coexist in the classroom (provided of course that computers were available) with ten or fifteen minutes beginning each school day (or in English class once they reached high school) writing by hand in the journal , come hell or high water. I’d require that some written assignments be done in cursive.

Teachers will object that there is not enough time to do this because standardized testing  mandates the teaching of so much material, and anyway students don’t need to know how to write a running hand in the digital age.

Have we really reached the stage where teachers don’t have ten minutes of discretionary time in the school day?

As for “need,” of course students don’t “need” cursive writing the way Charles Dickens, or for that matter our great grandmothers “needed” it, but they do need to be able to think their way carefully through a sentence; they need to think creatively and imaginatively, and they need to build neural connections that lead to increased language fluency. Neuroscientific studies indicate that overcoming the motor challenge posed by cursive writing leads to these outcomes.

But more research is needed to explore the effect writing in cursive has on the brain before we jettison it from the curriculum! Bill Gates, are you listening?

And as an afterthought: Did you know J.K Rowling wrote the first drafts of the Harry Potter books by hand?

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Today is National Handwriting Day—Taking a Long and Optimistic View

caption goes here

And the winner is—cursive handwriting

The folks at WordPress, the company that hosts this blog, kindly provide bloggers with statistics at the end of the year that show their most popular posts. And the winner for ‘Hints and Echoes” by a wide margin is—the June 28 post, “Cursive Handwriting: Should We Care If It Disappears?” Since it seems to be such a popular topic, I decided to give it some more thought.

When I voiced my opinion on the subject in June, I tended to think that regretfully handwriting was a disappearing practice, but now, I think I’ve been looking at it the wrong way. It’s not a question of an old technology (cursive handwriting)  giving way to a new technology (word processing), and the old technology becoming obsolete. After all, we are not going to stop manufacturing hands and fingers. Should we decide to reintroduce the teaching and practice of handwriting in our schools after it has virtually disappeared in society, it would be a simple matter.

I say “virtually disappeared” because I’m not so sure the practice of writing by hand will ever completely disappear. Even now when people are wearing out their thumbs texting, and it seems as if there is no need for the more leisurely pursuit of a handwritten letter or the more thoughtful process of making handwritten notes, there are those who continue to put pen to paper. These are the folks who are keeping stationery companies in business; the professors who require that lecture notes be taken by hand; the mothers who insist that their children handwrite thank you notes; the men and women (I suspect mainly women) who keep a handwritten journal.

It may be that eventually writing by hand becomes a social class marker, and the few who can afford creamy ivory correspondence cards engraved with their initials will write on them by hand and they will make sure that their children learn to write by hand too,  even if it means private instruction.

But I think that sooner or later, there will be a change of attitude among the wider population, and people will recognize the importance of handwriting, not because it is genteel, but because it connects us and affects us in a way that written words generated by a machine do not.  We are still in the early stages of the digital revolution after all. Though it may seem that email and social media have been around forever, we’ve hardly had time to really recognize and accept the negative effects on our personal lives of computer-generated writing.

And when neuroscientific research, which is now well underway, shows conclusively that writing by hand changes the brain in a positive way, which I have no doubt that it will, then the educational community will take note and introduce handwriting in the curriculum and herald it as a bright new educational reform!

If you were educated in a U.S. public school, you were probably taught the Palmer method, which replaced the less efficient nineteenth-century Spencerian script, notable for its excessive curlicues. Then there is the Italic script, which does not connect all the letters. I personally find an Italic hand more pleasing. Do we need all those hoops and loops? However, having mastered the Palmer method, I think I’d better not try to change my handwriting at this late date.

The Palmer alphabet

The Palmer alphabet

Spencerian script was based on Copperplate engraving

Spencerian script was based on Copperplate engraving

Italic cursive

Italic cursive

Incidentally, have you noticed that almost everyone admires beautiful handwriting, but a great many  people are embarrassed and apologetic when it comes to their own? Maybe that shows that we haven’t done a very good job of teaching it. I think we’ll do better next time. It may take a generation or more—or maybe less—but eventually I think that we will rediscover the joys and advantages of writing by hand. (For more on cursive handwriting, type the word “cursive” in the search box.)

P.S. Have you seen the signature of our new secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew—a signature that will now appear on all of our paper currency? Actually, it’s not so much a signature as it is a logo. I wonder how long it took him to come up with this absurdity. It occurs to me that Mr. Lew may be giving tradition the finger (sorry!).

Signature of Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury

Signature of Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury

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