Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Debating Cursive Writing

I wrote the assignment on the board, white chalk on black slate. When the kid in the back row asked me to read it aloud, I was worried that he might need glasses. So I asked him. His answer floored me: “I can see fine; I just can’t read cursive.”
A Lost Art by J Amos. Education Week
Recently, the Toronto Star’s Education section published a few of articles on the state of handwriting – cursive - in our local schools. A few among the many articles we've encountered over the past year looking at the disappearing art of handwriting.

But why all the fuss about teaching and learning cursive?

The benefits? Many educators think cursive writing reinforces reading, spelling and helps students retain what they learn better. It’s faster and often more legible than printing. Learning cursive writing can help instill confidence in students especially if they are having difficulty with printing. Cursive Writing can eliminate letter reversals such as “b” and “d”.The Toronto star has recently published some good articles that elaborate these benefits.

On the flip side, some students really struggle with writing neatly. It’s very hard to reproduce precisely at first, and it takes time and patience. A common complaint among teachers is the lack of time to teach cursive writing properly in the elementary grades: our curriculum has become far too dense to fully address all that's required, and marginalized teaching activities, such as cursive, become sidelined. It’s not to say that it’s not being taught, it’s often taught in haste and young students need lots of time and practice to learn cursive writing properly.

If a student struggles with, or is simply disinterested in, cursive, they may harbor negative feelings about their ability to write well, and writing neatly doesn’t translate to good content that is grammatically correct. I’ll never forget an experience I had working in a colleagues classroom, I was reading the short stories of some grade 2 and 3 students when I came across one boy’s story. He had a fearful look when I read his story – I couldn’t read a word of it, but once I asked him to read aloud what he had written it was a pleasurable experience. His story was loaded with humor, not to mention that it was structurally correct.

Digital writing, be it word processing, texting, discussion groups, blogging, etc, helps manage the fear of writing. The comparatively monotone keystroke can endow students with a surprising level of confidence when it comes to writing and sharing their thoughts: they're communicating and learning as peers, regardless of who is on the other end. They don’t have to scrutinize and be scrutinized for sloppy hand writing, and other students can focus on the content to discover the true mark of the author - a more meaningful way to go beyond the slant and loop as a distinguishing mark. Incidentally, an interesting report out of the UK – National Literacy Trust – Young Peoples’ writing: Attitudes, behaviour and the role of technology, found that many students who perceived themselves as poor writers did so because they weren’t neat writers among other things.

Recently debates over the use of hand writing in schools discuss the powerful connection between handwriting and emotion. I can’t deny there is something very intimate very raw about hand written work – it is the direct presence of the author. Neurologists have found that when we see handwriting it is our left brain that decodes and perceives words and it is our right brain that recognizes the author. Once our mind has determined who the writer is, it can trigger an emotional response similar when we see a human face.

But perhaps less attention to the mechanics and more of a focus on the development of a voice through the use of language in a students writing will not only help them become better writers, but better readers – better thinkers. In fact the Ontario Language Curriculum doesn’t mention cursive until Grade 4 and even then it’s minor. Prominence is put on much higher level thinking skills.

My grade three teacher reprimanded me for practicing my cursive with my left hand – I never forgot how embarrassed I felt. I quickly became critical of the way I wrote. Later, I use to recopy all of my notes sometimes more than once. I was overly concerned about presentation, and still am. So I am ambivalent about teaching the skill of cursive writing, but of course there are benefits to learning this skill.