Teaching Cursive

With the Senate proposing that all students be required to learn cursive (SB 5238), it makes sense, in the first place, to look at how writing is actually taught.

The students in my class can concoct the most amazing stories—inventive, creative, imaginative. Give them a writing prompt, though, and some of those same students can barely write a page. I don’t think it’s because a writing prompt makes their brains leak out their ears. I think they have problems writing because writing is difficult. And I’m not talking about the difficulties in generating and sustaining a story or idea. I’m talking about the physical task of writing, the moving of the pen or pencil across the page. For too many students it’s laborious, tedious, exhausting work. It defeats them. They are left unable to demonstrate their true capabilities.

Many children don’t have trouble with their handwriting because they are lazy or because they don’t care. They have trouble because they are writing with their fingers.

Gross motor skills are pretty well established in girls and boys by about age five, which is one of the reasons we start school at about age five.

Fine motor skills come later. Children who enjoy cutting with scissors, stretching and pinching modeling clay, stacking small blocks, or stringing beads may develop these skills by age five or six. Others (often boys) may have underdeveloped fine motor skills until age 12!

Obviously, you wouldn’t go to a class full of two-year-olds and try to teach them to skip. Physically, they just aren’t ready. Their muscles are not yet capable of doing the task. In the same way, you can’t go into a first grade classroom and try to teach all the students to write for any length of time (never mind neatly) by using the muscles in their hands and fingers. For many of them, their muscles are not yet ready to do the task.

Whether we use cursive, print, or all caps (the way engineers are trained to write), I’m going to suggest we ought to teach students to write by using their large muscles.

Years ago most American children were taught to write using their arm muscles instead of their fingers, using the Palmer method. My mother, born in 1930, remembers her first lessons: drawing endless circles in the air before eventually writing letters in the air and finally writing letters on paper. The teacher, facing the class and modeling the correct movements in reverse, monitored and corrected each student’s letter formation. Children across the country all learned the same method of writing, they all had handwriting that was similar—and their handwriting was legible.

A decade or more ago I used the same technique with my fifth and sixth graders. I made them use brushes and watercolors at the beginning so they wouldn’t bring their bad habits with them to this new practice. At the end of a month or so their handwriting was remarkably improved.

The Palmer method disappeared, though. By the time my generation started first grade, many schools used workbooks with photos and diagrams showing how to form letters correctly. We went right to copying the letters in our books. Inevitably we wrote by moving our fingers and our wrists.

Learning to write legibly is fine, to be sure, but content is a far more important issue. Physiology affects content, too. If children write with their small muscles, muscles which for many of them are not yet developed, those muscles will tire long before the children can write down all they want to say. Children may start strong on a piece and then simply stop, almost in mid-thought. In a test situation that calls for a mandatory rough draft and final draft, they may turn in a stronger rough draft and a truncated final draft.

I certainly saw evidence of writing fatigue on the WASL and MSP paper and pencil writing tests.

Feeling frustrated, several years ago I worked with some primary teachers at my school and the author of the Draw.Write.Now series to do an experiment. We took one third of the students from each first grade class and taught them how to write in ways that were physically less taxing, including teaching them the Palmer method. Then as their teachers gave them writing prompts and they turned in their work, we counted the number of words each child wrote. The students in the experimental group wrote more, on average, for each prompt.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as teaching physiologically sound writing techniques.

In the second place, some student process their thinking better on a computer than they do on paper. For those students, the sooner they learn to touch type, the better.

In fact, since the SBA and so many other tests are all computer-based, schools are teaching typing skills as early as second grade. Where are schools finding the time to add lessons in typing? Hmm, by deleting lessons in cursive, which used to start in second grade.

Right now I have students writing historical fiction narrative pieces. I’ve told the class the stories will be graded on content only—they don’t need to worry about conventions. (Huge sigh of relief!) The students will read their pieces aloud to the class or, if they prefer, I will read them aloud, and we will comment. We will enjoy each other’s writing.

Some students are writing on paper because that’s the way they work best. Some are on computers because that’s the way they work best. Since they are reading the stories aloud, it doesn’t matter if they do their writing on paper or on computers.

And isn’t that part of what we are supposed to do? To differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the individual students in our classes? One way to differentiate is through process. My students are all happy they can choose the process that suits them best.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as allowing students to find their best means of written communication.

I know there are people who think teaching cursive is important. Frankly, my dear, I’m not one of them.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Cursive

  1. Kristin

    You could be describing my child, a 3rd grader, and it’s heartbreaking to see him start to loathe writing when he has such wonderful ideas. It’s such a struggle to get them down that I worry the thinking will start to be “absolute minimum” as well. We’re learn keyboarding and cursive now (which he likes, but probably too many things at once!) to see if one of these makes it easier. I’m also interested to see how speech-to-text, revising with pencil, might work for him. Thanks for the thoughtful piece (that goes for every post here!)!

  2. Jan Kragen

    Thank you for writing. I understand your struggle. One thing I suggest to parents is having their child tell his or her story into a recording device. Once they have it all down–on tape, MP3, the phone, whatever–they can play it back bit by bit and write it, either by hand or on the computer. That way they can take their time with the physical task of writing and not lose the thread of the story that they can create so much more easily just using words.

  3. Tom White

    I used to teach cursive when i taught third grade. But our focus has now shifted to teaching keyboarding. Frankly, the writing process on a computer is completely different since students can work on different parts of their text instead of just where they left off.

    The only cursive skills I insist on are writing their names ability to read cursive.

    1. Ellen Kita

      Until reading your comment, I hadn’t given much thought as to how helpful working on an assignment on a computer can be – especially in terms of editing and revising.
      You mention that you only require students to be able to write their names and read in cursive. I am wondering how you might teach them to read cursive without teaching them how to write it.
      Thanks for your insight!

  4. Ellen Kita

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. I really appreciate your suggestion that allowing children to write in which ever they prefer as a way to differentiate.

    For the past 10 years that I have taught in my district, there has been absolutely no instruction in handwriting – print or cursive. This created some problems. The students did not learn proper letter formations, so had to come up with their own methods for getting those symbols on paper. These strategies are laborious and time-consuming and often interfere with the students’ ability to actually get their thoughts on paper. The students often used many extra movements to form letters, which did not end up looking they way they should anyway. For example, instead of a printed “d” was written as a circle (often started at the left) and a line (which started form the bottom).

    I believe, too, that there are benefits to teaching handwriting that we often don’t think about. I learned cursive through Palmer Method. I remember writing what felt like endless a’s and b’s, then placing a star above my best one. I had to be patient and persistent, and evaluate my own work – all skills we want our students to develop. As a bonus, I know I also learned a bunch of interesting facts about a variety of topics when I had to practice writing the sentences. To this day, I remember reading about one-room school houses and orangutans (which were certainly not in our 3rd grade curriculum).

    Teaching handwriting (cursive, print, typing, etc.) can definitely improve our students’ ability to communicate effectively.

    Thanks again for an interesting article.

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