Column: Has cursive handwriting outlived usefulness for students?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2003

This year my son is learning how to write in cursive. It’s a standard part of the curriculum in third grade in most schools. He brings his practice sheets home filled with elegant &uot;a&uot;s and &uot;s&uot;s

and every other letter of the alphabet. He’s proud of the neatness of his script and is careful about drawing all the little loops and connecting the letters in each word. Unfortunately, he’s also good about commenting on the quality of my own handwriting.

And the truth is, my handwriting is terrible. Every semester students complain that they can’t read my comments. They’re always hanging around after class, asking for translations of the scrawl on their papers. And they’re absolutely right to be annoyed! Sometimes I can’t read what I wrote. So I’ve switched to using my computer, and only write things by hand when I can’t use the computer.

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Once upon a time I had handwriting that was legible, even elegant. I enjoyed practicing those letters, probably in much the same way that my children enjoy it now. But once I got to middle school, and then even more in high school, the teachers stopped helping us with our cursive writing. The charts above the chalkboards that served as reminders were gone. When it came to handwriting, teachers seemed much more interested in being able to read something than in whether we printed or wrote in cursive or created some kind of hybrid that was in between.

Some of my classmates went right back to printing (especially boys) once we reached seventh grade. Others kept on with cursive, but made it even &uot;prettier&uot; with little hearts over the &uot;i&uot;s and smiley face periods &045; these were mostly girls. I kept using cursive, sort of, but started using more and more print letters over the years, so that by now my handwriting is mostly the old block letters, with only remnants of cursive left. I don’t even remember how to make cursive versions of many letters.

Last fall I asked the students in my college writing classes whether they still used cursive or not, and what they thought about having had to learn it. Most said they didn’t use cursive anymore. Block printing was easier to read, they said. But they thought it still might be a good idea for kids to learn how to read cursive, since they thought old people still used it. One interesting comment, though, was that cursive might end up becoming an indication of a person’s class in society, with the children of the rich learning how to write elegantly and the rest of us only learning how to use keyboards.

I grew up when handwriting still mattered, when the technology of written communication was primarily the pencil or pen, but I didn’t continue to use cursive. So what did I gain by spending time learning it in the first place? Now that our communications technology is made up of word processors and e-mail, why do we still bother spending any time on cursive writing in school?

I don’t think that cursive is a complete waste of time. There is value in learning it, but it is a skill with limited value &045; like the skill needed for calligraphy. It’s a nice sort of &uot;luxury&uot; to be able to write that way, but it isn’t the best way to put down on paper most of what we need to write every day. I think that children should be taught to write legibly and not necessarily in cursive. I think that keyboarding should be taught more than writing by hand. I also think schools could use that time in third grade more productively, for foreign language instruction, for geography, math and science.

Cursive as a topic isn’t quite up there with the war on terrorism or Minnesota’s fiscal woes, but it’s one of those little issues that affects just about everybody. So what do you think? What has your experience been? When you write by hand, what do you use: block letters? cursive? both together? What do you think schools should be doing? Should they continue to teach cursive? Or is it time for a change? Log on to the Tribune’s Web site and register your opinion on the issue.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.