Doug Millroy: Cursive writing, lost between the keys?

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At the age of 86, with 87 peering over the horizon, I realize that I probably am a step behind the times.

But I was still surprised when I learned that a 12-year-old grandson in Grade 7 in the Huron-Superior Catholic District School system couldn’t write his name in longhand.

Two other grandchildren in their 20s even have trouble reading it.

Cursive writing, it seems, is no longer essential in education in Ontario or in many other places.

How did I miss this?

I suppose it is because it has been a long time since I was raising kids.

In any event it has piqued my interest and not in a good way.

I disagree totally with the premise so I approached the Algoma District School Board and the Huron-Superior Catholic School Board for information as to what the situation is here.

I am writing to inquire as to where the school system stands on cursive writing, I asked. Is it taught any longer?

I explained about my grandson not being able to write his name and also that from my research I had discovered that some boards in Canada and the U.S. were now reintroducing it into the curriculum.

“I looked into the curriculum expectations and cursive writing is not mandated, but students are made aware of it. Some teachers may choose to do some work  with it,” Jennifer Sarlo, chairperson of the Algoma board, replied..

“From curriculum documents:

“Writing, Specific Expectation 3.7: Use elements of effective presentation in the finished product, including print, script, different fonts, graphics, and layout. (e.g., use legible printing and cursive writing)

“I believe there are some resources available to parents who choose to work with their children at home on it.”

Rose Burton Spohn, director of education with the separate board, said:

“Our teachers must follow the provincial curriculum. Since cursive writing is not an expectation in the curriculum document, individual teachers may or may not be teaching cursive writing.

“The Ministry of Education determines the curriculum that is taught in all provincially-funded Ontario schools. The language document was last updated in 2006. From at least that point forward, teachers across Ontario would have had the choice to teach or not teach cursive writing.”

So much for the three Rs. By my read it would now be the two Rs, reading an ‘rithmetic.

Years ago, way back in the 1930s, according to one story, cursive writing was to give way to typewriters.

Didn’t happen.

But the advent of all the electronic gadgets that have come into play since apparently got the thought going again, this time with support from, if you can believe it, educators.

I am definitely old school. I believe cursive writing, whether you ever have to use it or not, should be a mandatory part of the curriculum. And that is not just for the writing, but for the reading as well.

It will take several generations to fully excise cursive writing from daily use but it will never be excised from official documents that include notes in longhand.

The Catholic Board in Toronto returned to cursive writing in 2014 and state legislatures in Alabama, California, Tennessee, Louisianna and several other states have mandated it in the U.S.

In some states that don’t have it, summer camps have been set up to teach it.

Any kind of writing “is going to have massive benefits for the brain,” Indiana University professor and co-author Karin James was quoted in a Washington Post story.

It said other studies demonstrate that students retain more information if they write their notes, instead of typing them. For all the challenges of cursive, young children acquire the skill “very fast, as soon as they get exposure,” she said. “Visual recognition during childhood is so plastic and malleable.”

And, according to the story, a week will do.

Campers seemed to luxuriate in the tactile activities, the way cursive allowed them to rarely raise their pens from paper, an entire word recorded in a few swooping strokes. By the end of the five-day program, Johnson said, “they read historical documents so much better,” and were mesmerized to unlock their secrets.

“It’s ridiculous,” Shilo Stagg, whose eight-year-old daughter Lexie attended Grade 3 at Octagon Pond Elementary, told the Cape Breton Post. “I teach Lexie how to write myself, but a few people I know think it’s a waste of time. I don’t think it’s a waste of time. I think it will be useful for her and I can’t believe the schools don’t teach it any more.”

There is some thought teachers don’t have the time to teach it any more. I don’t buy that. As mentioned above, it can be done in five days if it is done in a concentrated exercise. In regualr schools it could be done in smaller episodes over a year.

That was the way it was when I was in elementary school. We learned cursive writing in Grade 3 and were fully proficient by Grade 4.

Proficient in my case is a relative term

In Grade 4, the boys, myself included, turned into a race everything the teacher wrote on the blackboard that we had to copy. As a result a lot of us ended up with horrible penmanship, which in my case lasts to this day.

One day my wife passed back to me a note I had written, asking me to read it to her as she couldn’t. I got through the first part with some difficulty but then came up against a wall. For the life of me I couldn’t make out what I had written in that last sentence.

“I give up,” I said. “I have no idea what I wrote there.”

She smiled the smile that tells me something is coming that I am not going to like.

“You didn’t write anything there,” she said. “I just put down some chicken scratches.”

I am not exactly a walking advertisement for cursive writing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t support it.

Ann Andrachuk, the Toronto Catholic Trustee who introduced the motion that was unanimously approved in 2014 to return the teaching of cursive writing to board schools, was quoted in The Toronto Star at the time as saying many families in her area who hail from Europe wonder why schools here don’t teach it. Overseas, “some countries introduce it before printing, because it is easier to learn, rather than block letters,” she added. “It’s smooth flowing and you are always going in one direction.”

Actually I liked the way it was done when I was young, going from the printed letter to the rounded. It seemed natural to just join up and put a little lean on the letters we had been printing.

I don’t believe cursive writing should have simply been abandoned on the say-so of government officials or educators. Parents should have had a say in it.

In one questionnaire that went out in Winnipeg in 2015, 90% of respondents said it was a skill still worth teaching.

It would have been interesting to have known what parents in Ontario thought about the change that took place here back in 2006 and also would be interesting to know what they think now.

Any bets as to which way that would go?

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Doug Millroy
After 61 years in the news business, 41 of them associated with The Sault Star as editor, Doug continues to share his passion for writing as a columnist since retirement.

8 COMMENTS

  1. The issue goes a little beyond cursive. Have you seen the typical handwriting from anyone younger than in their 40s recently? It looks like a child’s scribble and is often barely legible.

  2. My best friends daughter, who is in college in Sudbury, cannot WRITE her name when signing papers…And I have now found many others who can’t read OR write cursive. A friend down the hall here has the most beautiful cursive hand I have ever seen and it is always a pleasure to read her notes.. I have actually started to use cursive more now, mostly to tick off people that can’t read it…LOL…

  3. Doug: I can use hand-written notes but I choose to print most of my notes to avoid any misunderstanding and make it easier to read.

  4. Doug: I can write but my handwriting is easily misunderstood so I use printed notes that are more easily understood and avoids any confusion

  5. Handwriting matters — does cursive? Research shows that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are available on request.) Further research shows that the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive. They join only the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving others unjoined, using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree. (Many people who think that they “print” actually write in this practical way without realizing that they do so. The handwriting of many teachers comes close: even though, often, those teachers have never noticed that they are not at all writing in the same 100% print or 100% cursive that they demand that their students should write.) Teaching material for such practical handwriting abounds — especially in much of the UK and Europe, where such practical handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive that too many North American educators venerate. (Again, sources are available on request.) For what it’s worth, there are some parts of various countries (parts of the UK, for instance, despite their mostly sensible handwriting ) where governmental mandates for 100% joined cursive handwriting have been increasingly enforced, without regard for handwriting practicality and handwriting research, In those parts of the world, there are rapidly growing concerns on the increasingly observed harmful educational/literacy effects (including bad effects on handwriting quality) seen when 100% joined cursive requirements are complied with: http://morrellshandwriting.co.uk/blog/

    Reading cursive, of course, remains important —and this is much easier and quicker to master than writing cursive. Reading cursive can be mastered in just 30 to 60 minutes, even by kids who print. Given the importance of reading cursive, why not teach it explicitly and quickly, once children can read print, instead of leaving this vital skill to depend upon learning to write in cursive? Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by cursive textbook publisher Zaner-Bloser.. Only 37% wrote in cursive; another 8% printed. Most — 55% — wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When even most handwriting teachers do not follow cursive, why glorify it? Cursive’s cheerleaders allege that cursive has benefits justifying absolutely anything said or done to promote it. Cheerleaders for cursive repeatedly allege research support — repeatedly citing studies that were misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant or by some other, earlier misrepresenter whom the claimant innocently trusts.

    What about cursive and signatures? Brace yourself: in Canada and everywhere else, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any member of the legal profession!)

    Questioned document examiners (specialists in the identification of signatures, verification of documents, etc.) find that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if following cursive’s rules at all, are fairly complicated: easing forgery.
    All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual. That is how any first-grade teacher immediately discerns (from print-writing on unsigned work) which child produced it.
    Mandating cursive to save handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to save clothing.

    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, the World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
    handwritingrepair+media@gmail.com

  6. It seems over the years that schools have opted out of teaching grammar…..sentence structure…proper printing etc.These basic and fundamental English topics have been replaced by more time being spent on ART…FRENCH..PHYS ED etc. The same I might add is happening with MATH.

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