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An Overrated Skill
In my opinion, any way, is what cursive handwriting is. I knew how to do it, once upon a time, but I quit in junior high school, when I realized that I could write more legibly and quickly by printing. I understand the theory that things go faster when you don't have to pick up the pen, but I never found that it went that much faster, and it was unreadable, often even by me.
Now comes an old-school teacher who wants to revive the skill, which is apparently dying out among the nation's youth, because many teachers can't do it themselves, and if they can, don't want to take the time to teach it, or have the students practice.
In high school and college, any student without a 24/7 laptop cannot hope to keep accurate notes on a lecture course. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting specialist based in Albany, estimates that while a student needs to jot down 100 legible words a minute to follow a typical lecture, someone using print can manage only 30. "That's fine for class," she said, "if the class is first grade."
Sorry, but I just don't buy the necessity of this in a world in which keyboards cost five bucks and laptops continue to drop in price and size. Committing thoughts to paper with pen or pencil is pure drudgery for me. If I hadn't had access to a typewriter in high school and college (this was before word processors, which would have been a godsend), it's quite possible that I'd have flunked out, so extreme is my aversion to handwriting in any form. And in fact, I can only think of one time that my inability to write script has had any noticeable impact on my academic or professional career. In 1981, when I took the GRE, I had to write on the front of the book an honor pledge of some sort that I wouldn't cheat. It said that it must be written, not printed. I dredged up out of memories of elementary school how the letters were formed, and carefully and laboriously dragged the pen across the page to write the words. That was the first time I'd done so since about eighth grade, and I've never done it since.
And I don't buy her speed estimates. As already noted, there was little difference in speed between printing and cursive writing for me, and a huge difference in legibility.
I absolutely disagree with this statement:
Once you learn to walk, you won't go back to crawling again."
Perhaps not, but the analogy is poor. For me, cursive writing is stumbling along, printing is walking (painfully), and typing is running like the wind, in which my thoughts simply magically and effortlessly appear on the screen, with no intermediary between. If it be dying, I refuse to mourn the loss of handwriting, or support efforts to revive it.
[Update at 1 PM EST]
One more point. I also disagree with this:
"...you're probably going to be taking notes for the rest of your lives. I don't know anybody who works on a computer and doesn't also have a pad nearby."
This must be like Pauline Kael's famous comment that Nixon couldn't have won, because she didn't know anyone who voted for him.
In fact, I work extensively on a computer, and have no physical notepads nearby, and haven't for years. That's what text editors (e.g., Microsoft Notepad) are for.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 21, 2005 08:03 AM
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That's what my signature might look like to an OCR program. And don't even ask me to try cursive script on other words -- even a pharmacist couldn't decipher it.
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I'm behind you 100% on this topic. I never perfected the art of writing and I admire those who write beautifully. It's not for me. My teacher once said my writing resembled the drunken wanderings of a fly that had fallen into an inkwell. Thank Dog for keyboards and word processors!Posted by Jean Brasseur at January 21, 2005 08:17 AM
Hrmm, so I see several justifications put forth for teaching cursive handwriting. First, a person skilled in the activity would concentrate less on the act of writing and more on what they are writing. Second, it's faster than block print and hence useful for notetaking. Finally, you have to sign important stuff and that's usually done in cursive.
I can see some reason to teach it due to the first and third reasons, but frankly if you're concerned about the speed of writing, then teach shorthand. Frankly, I think that would be more useful than cursive.
If you need to jot down 100 WPM, you need to learn how to take shorthand dictation.
I abandoned cursive when I entered College. My professors could not read my notes. Cursive has no value in Science and Engineering IMO. I am a south paw so my writing is not so neat anyway.
I wonder what this woman is going to do in a few years when effective voice recognition software is commonplace?Posted by Mike Puckett at January 21, 2005 08:36 AM
Actually, I don't even write my signature. It's an unreadable scribble, and it's worked fine for me for decades. What's important about a signature is not that it be legible, but that it be difficult to forge.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 21, 2005 08:42 AM
Amen. I gave up on cursive about the time I started high school. Fortunately, by the time I hit college word processors were starting to appear. My wife has beautiful handwriting (my excuse for letter her sign all of the Christmas/Birthday cards), but I can't even read my own chicken scratches, and i much prefer the engineering/architectural style of print I use instead.Posted by Greg at January 21, 2005 08:56 AM
As far as speed goes, I have to disagree guys. I can write MUCH faster in cursive than I can block printing. But when writing instructions, or addressing envelopes, I also use block printing, because it is easier for others to read, though I can read my own cursive scratchings just fine, thank you. I do think it's a good skill to possess, but I wouldn't get all Crusadish about it.Posted by David A. Young at January 21, 2005 09:47 AM
Handwriting was my speed bump on the Autobahn of Grade School. I was always being told that I should be getting "Straight A's" but the only time I came even close to it was for a couple of grading periods in Second Grade when I had all A's except for a B in Writing (as in handwriting). That still wasn't acceptable in my household, although now I wonder if being a year younger than everyone in my class (I had skipped First Grade because I could read in Kindergarten), I might have been a little behind in motor control (and boys generally lag behind girls in that anyway). That B might have been about as good as it could get.
In Fourth Grade, I was doing more or less well with handwriting (by then I was in perpetual hot water at home over my grades in other subjects), but I decided capital script letters looked dopey. So I started printing my capitals even with the rest of a text in cursive because I thought it looked more "artistic" that way. The Fourth Grade teacher looked at it more as me not getting with the program, gave me C's in Writing for my willful defiance, and even assigned one of her good-grade-getting favorites to review with me after school how make script capital letters.
I didn't mind so much because that was the girl I had an aching crush on in that class, and spending quality time with her more or less alone, even practicing how to make capital letters, was heaven-sent. I thought all we needed was a soda with two straws to make it a date, but the feeling on the other side was probably more that I needed a Dunce cap. Still, it was the most time I ever spent with her in all the years I knew her...but I still print my capitals.
Now my script has degenerated over time into an indecipherable scrawl with a lot of printed letters mixed in, and even as an adult I've seen it evolve still further in recent years as I've found new and quicker ways to scribble things. But it is faster than printing, and as long as I can read it, it's useful. Where I get into trouble is having to write notes that somebody else will have to read -- I slow up, I have to think about it, writing becomes a pain, and I even make typos, so I have to keep Liquid Paper on hand.Posted by Dwight Decker at January 21, 2005 09:47 AM
I'll take notes in cursive when on the phone because my one-handed typing speed is abysmal.Posted by Karl Gallagher at January 21, 2005 10:42 AM
Dwight, please remove yourself from my brain...
My experience is almost the exact same as Dwight's, including the grade-skippage but excluding the willful defiance of my teachers before the 7th grade. I also have a handwriting style that is a combination of script and print (and occasional cryptic abbreviations).
I find the assertion that a college student must write 100 WPM a little specious, however. Though it's been a few years since college, I can only recall one class during my four years that required note-taking beyond the concept of, well, "notes". And that was because the professor had a 300-page "handout" that contained his entire note-set for the year, which I declined to pay an outrageous amount of time and money to make a copy of.
The whole idea of note-taking in a class is to write a summary of the lecture, not to take dictation. And as Mike said, if you're taking dictation, you need to learn shorthand, not cursive.
I also agree with Mike Puckett's comment, script has little use in science and engineering, except for writing variable names in physics equations (in the rare case when you get to use latin letters instead of greek letters).
This all leads me to my point, which is that, for me at least, I retain information MUCH better if I write it down instead of read it. I also seem to retain information better when I hand-write it rather than type it. I'm not sure that I would have ever been able to take notes via a computer in class, and I still hand-write meeting notes at my job.
A paperless office is a notion that everyone seems to want to promote, but very few seem to actually be able to make useful. I think that human nature will eventually dictate that both media need to be preserved for communication.
Just without the cursive.Posted by John Breen III at January 21, 2005 10:45 AM
These Handwriting Nazis are everywhere. I wrote cursive until I went into the Navy, at which time everything went to all caps block printing. Thats the way all forms and logs HAD to be filled out. Its a habit I retain to this day. My cursive is and was pitiful at best. My wife gives me, and both my sons fits over the fact the we "lost the ability" to write correctly after being in the service. She by the way has beautiful, perfect handwriting.
After I got out of the Navy and my older son was in 3rd grade, he came home one day with a note from his teacher about attention to detail and paying attention in class. I signed the note, with some comments added and sent it back.
The next day he brings me another note saying, among other things,"...and perhaps If you will pay closer attention to your own penmanship, so will your son."
I returned the note with the folowing comment
I did not get anymore notes from her.Posted by Steve at January 21, 2005 10:54 AM
The only use I find for cursive handwriting is for writing formal personal letters and thank you notes. I do all my real writing on a keyboard.Posted by Bruce Rheinstein at January 21, 2005 11:35 AM
I've often had thoughts like these, but I didn't want to appear under-skilled and under-educated by admiting that cursive writing is useless to me and that I'm not sure I could still produce it if needed.
I can report, however, that the 3 month's I spend in typing class in HS, which was mocked at the time by my most of my educated role models, has proven to be very worthwhile.
On the subject of taking notes, most of the way through college notes consisted of equations, which aren't cursive.Posted by Fred K at January 21, 2005 12:01 PM
Jeez! There's still quite a few people carting around bad memories from childhood. Let it go, let it go! In western european countries kids never learn to print. They start right off with cursive. This has several advantages.
1. Kids don't writet the letters backwards.
That's pretty much all there is to it. I don't think anyone is proposing to outlaw printing. From an educational point of view it is a better path to follow. I am sorry if anyone's writing teacher was the "soup nazi" but if you can just get past that you will see that it's not such an unreasonable proposal.Posted by Jardinero1 at January 21, 2005 12:15 PM
3. It is, dexterity-wise, easier to write in cursive than print. There is less cramping and fatigue.
5. It is faster and easier to write cursive than to print.
Repeating myths doesn't make them true. This may be true for some people, but it's not universally so (me being one example, with several other commenters here chiming in). I learned how to write cursively. I never learned to like it (both because it was harder work, and because I couldn't read it when done).
The fact that so many here disagree with those propositions should make their defenders reexamine them. One size does not fit all.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 21, 2005 12:20 PM
I'll type whenever possible, but, like Karl, find it next to impossible to do so when on the phone. (perhaps if I had a headset...)
I also make notes in the car, sometimes while driving (though I do try to wait for a stoplight if possible). There's no way that can be done with a laptop. Plus, I make notes on Post-It paper so I can stick the notes to the dashboard, or to the calendar or fridge (grocery list, must-do, etc.), as the case may be. A task list in a computer does no good if the computer isn't on, and right there with me (I have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mind).
My handwriting sucks, but I can read it. I try always to type for other people to read, though I can make my writing more legible if necessary (though it's a slow, deliberate process).
Filling out forms usually needs printing; I really wish people would issue the forms in a way they can be filled out on a computer and then printed.
By the way, my mother had perfect Palmer cursive. I sometimes wonder if handwriting might have a genetic component; both my and my brother's handwriting resembles my father's, though my parents were divorced before either of us was old enough to write cursive. (I was my mother's constant despair, handwriting-wise. ;-p)Posted by Barbara Skolaut at January 21, 2005 12:22 PM
I disagree Rand. I happen to think that writing, not typing, is essential to learning out to effectively read and understand what you read.
Take cursive out of the equation and pretty soon you will have people begin questioning the need to print! After all, it is easier to teach them the keys on the keyboard, right.
Sometimes easier does not mean better.Posted by Dave at January 21, 2005 12:24 PM
I happen to think that writing, not typing, is essential to learning out to effectively read and understand what you read.
Well, I happen to think that people who make assertions with no support other than that they "happen to think" it, is not a very persuasive argument. I was reading, and understanding what I was reading, long before I was writing, or typing.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 21, 2005 12:29 PM
Part of the issue is memory. I do use cursive writing as notes to myself, but I don't do much of it. With a few exceptions, they are usually hints to jog my memory, and if a keyboard is nearby I use that. I can go months without writing anything except my signature. Even back in my college days I didn't write much. I don't have a preference for block writing, except when noting exact technical terms.
One time I took a college course with my sister. I would listen carefully to the Prof and write down key points while she would be scribbling furiously beside me. When we met to go over the material for a test, she would have at least 10 pages of notes for each one of mine, but I would explain to her what they meant - based on my list of key points. She's quite intelligent, but I have a better memory for technical material and, more important, she was spending so much time writing she didn't concentrate on what the Prof said.Posted by VR at January 21, 2005 12:31 PM
I happen to think that writing, not typing, is essential to learning out [sic] to effectively read and understand what you read.
Okay ... Would you mind explaining why you think that? I would agree that the act of writing - by whatever means - is useful in understanding the structure of the language. I have no idea why cursive writing would have an advantage over other methods. Nor do I think it is as important for reading comprehension as simply doing a great deal of reading.
Posted by VR at January 21, 2005 12:46 PM
This doesn't fall under the definition of myth. I was repeating what my son's pediatric OT and speech therapist told us when we took him to get help with his reading and writing. They seemed well informed and worked wonders with him but they could be wrong.Posted by Jardinero1 at January 21, 2005 01:04 PM
"Once you learn to walk, you won't go back to crawling again."
Somebody's never been thru a live fire training drill.Posted by triticale at January 21, 2005 01:09 PM
That depends on how you define "myth," I guess. It may very well be that they helped with your son. That doesn't make them experts on everyone. I think that the notion that cursive writing is faster/easier for everyone, with less cramping nd fatigue, is based more on theory than on empirical evidence.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 21, 2005 01:09 PM
No one has pointed out yet that if you're writing 100 wpm in a lecture, you probably aren't understanding the material well enough (IMHO). I credit my always paraphrased and condensed, and nearly unreadable printed notes for making me learn the material better, since it forces me to think about what I'm writing during the lecture, rather than just sit and copy.
Speaking as an engineering student at Georgia Tech, no one in my classes has ever taken notes with a laptop, mostly due to the extensive use of math and diagrams, and I might take one to three pages (engineer's pad, front only) of notes in a lecture, depending primarily on the number of equations and diagrams I have to put down.Posted by Patrick O'Leary at January 21, 2005 02:02 PM
This reminds me of the history and government courses that I had to take in college. I had never written so much or so fast in my life. Pure lecture, lots and lots of words. In engineering classes, you would be writing some and drawing free body diagrams or control loops or circuits or something. But not in those history/govt classes! I would leave those classes with my hands all cramped up... Oh well, I guess I did OK since I got A's in them.Posted by Astrosmith at January 21, 2005 09:09 PM
"Speaking as an engineering student at Georgia Tech, no one in my classes has ever taken notes with a laptop, mostly due to the extensive use of math and diagrams, and I might take one to three pages (engineer's pad, front only) of notes in a lecture, depending primarily on the number of equations and diagrams I have to put down."
Methinks of a new use for digital cameras!Posted by Mike Puckett at January 21, 2005 09:37 PM
I find it very difficult to read other people's cursive writing. It is all just a bunch of letter like scribbles on the paper or whiteboard. I really don't know if there is a huge speed advantage either way in general. I personally haven't written in cursive for years. Though I gave it a try when I read this post and found that I still can.Posted by Mark Smith at January 21, 2005 10:26 PM
Anyone who thinks cursive script is less taxing sure ain't left-handed. By popular demand (of my teachers) I quit writing anything cursively except my signature after junior high. I take after my father in both respects.
The only "downside" to any of this occurred three decades or so ago when I couldn't supply a cursive "handwriting sample" when applying for a job. Some loon in upper management apparently fancied himself a handwriting interpreter and nobody got hired without submitting a sample and letting him do his thing. I looked upon this as a lucky break. Beforehand, I'd actually have to take a job to find out the management were loons.
Leave cursive script on the same pile as illuminated manuscripts and other such Dark Ages folderol.Posted by Dick Eagleson at January 22, 2005 04:06 AM
Sorry, I disagree with the original premise that students need to record in writing 100 WPM. What use is that? Is it that students just go to class to write down whatever the lecturer says then actually learn it later? If that's the case, the lecturer simply needs to provide audio recordings and be done with it. Furthermore, what class doesn't require a text. If the student has to record so much, then a better text is needed.Posted by Leland at January 22, 2005 08:36 AM
I wonder how many of those of us who don't write cursive well (I include myself in the group) learned to read some time before we learned to write. I've always found cursive hard to read (even perfect cursive) as well as to write.
I also note no difference between memory retention in writing or typing notes from a lecture. As long as I re-read the notes (in either case), I remember.Posted by Kathy K at January 22, 2005 02:47 PM
Note taking for me has to be handwriting: block caps, cursive, doodles - pretty much anything. It's highly impractical to use a keyboard when there are diagrams and associated other stuff to be captured in real time. Like other commentators I use the phone a lot and scribble with one hand and hold the phone with the other.
I also find it easier to organise data and thoughts in diagram or mind-map form on paper before entering them into a PC.
During my engineering degree a laptop would have been pointless in most of the lectures.
Legible cursive is a handy skill, as is typing.Posted by Daveon at January 22, 2005 06:02 PM
> Methinks of a new use for digital cameras!
Except if the lecturers are anything like ours they'd scrub out parts of equations randomly before they were finished to show you where the next bit would fit in and assume that you could keep up with their maths.Posted by Daveon at January 22, 2005 06:04 PM
Except if the lecturers are anything like ours they'd scrub out parts of equations randomly before they were finished to show you where the next bit would fit in and assume that you could keep up with their maths.
Ok, then we use digital camcorders. How else are you going to catch those randomly erased tricks they pull? I've used them before to record math talks so I know it works.
My left-handed cursive was so bad that I was given the only exception to the 'all cursive rule' in the district in 4th grade.
I also took a bit of flack in HS for taking typing. I'd been typing on the computer a significant portion of my waking life for 5 years at age 17, and hunt and peck just slowed me down. A semester on the SelectricsTM and I was Golden!
My typing teacher was a bit miffed that I didn't take the second semester of the 'year long course'. I told her that I had already learned to type, and didn't need to pointlessly practice additional business letter formats that I could just look up if I ever needed them, which was the bulk of the second semester.
It seemed completely foreign to her that a HS student would take a class on purpose because that wanted to learn something specific, rather than because it was part of some bureaucratic graduation requirement. I that that says about all that need be said about public schools in California!Posted by David Mercer at January 23, 2005 04:25 AM
My hand writing has taken on a bastardized mixture of cursive and printing. I've never had good handwriting and it has gotten much worse. The fact that I type so much now the muscles used for writing easily tire from the
I take on average of 30-40 phone calls a day and I have to type in all the details of the call into our call tracking software. So, I'm typing a short stories worth of information on a daily basis. I write down names and phone numbers and the occasional error message on my notepad but otherwise I usually just use my pen to flip in the air when I'm bored.
I've had a number of 2 paragraph speed tests over 95 wpm which is about the average length of information I type into a call description. I've done some single sentence speed tests over 150 wpm. Sort of the drag racing of typing tests with a single sentence that has you touch all the letters in the alphabet at least once.Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at January 24, 2005 05:55 AM
My handwriting was terrible as a child, particularly my cursive. I switched to printing everything out of necessity.
Suprisingly, my handwriting improved dramatically during college, to the point that my printed handwriting can be quite good if I concentrate and take my time. This may be because of the sheer amount of note-taking I did. It may also be due to the fact that one of my hobbies is art, and I was doing a lot of sketching and drawing, which may have finally given me the precise motor control needed to perfect my printing.
I could probably learn to write well in cursive if I started over again as an adult, but it's just not important to me.Posted by Jon Acheson at January 24, 2005 07:28 AM
Back to left handedness.
It is generally true that lefties have more difficulty with writing cursive comfortably than righties. This is because righties can drag the pencil which is vastly easier than pushing a pencil. A lefty compensates, somewhat, by printing. Why? Because when you print you can perform many of the strokes backwards thereby dragging instead of pushing the pencil.
As an aside, I don't understand the argument:
"I choose not to write well in cursive or improve my cursive so why should anyone else."
There were at least a dozen posts with that message. What kind of stupid argument is that?Posted by Jardinero1 at January 24, 2005 09:36 AM
"I choose not to write well in cursive or improve my cursive so why should anyone else."
That isn't the argument--it's a strawman. The argument is "I've done fine without writing well in cursive, and all of this emphasis on the skill as something that should be universally required is probably misplaced."
I see nothing in your post that rebuts this.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 24, 2005 09:44 AM
I went through school from first grade until college with teachers complaining about my cursive handwriting. Once I got to college and learned drafting (with a board and t-square) my printing improved dramatically. My cursive stayed sloppy. By the time I graduated I had paid for three years of engineering school working as a draftsman. I could hand print corrections on drawings, or short notes that were indistinguishable from lettering done with a rapid-o-graph template.
Granted this level of exactness in lettering came at the cost of speed. My lettering was slow, but perfect. However if I sacrificed perfection I could print very legably and quickly. My cursive writing was still only legable to me. I could print legably, right or left handed faster and neater than I could write cursive. Still can.
However once CAD was developed and I eventually drifted away from engineering and got into computers I started living at a keyboard and my printing ability has deteriorated as well. Now I'm just a keyboard bound geek who has second graders who write more legably than I do.
Cursive has it's place - personal letters, notes, and cards. printing is also necessary. I tried teaching an HTML class at my kid's middle school. lecturing with 20 kids typing was very distracting I can't imagine what it would be like in a lecture hall with 200 students. I would probably ban laptops from my classroom.Posted by david at January 24, 2005 02:09 PM
However if we are going to compare efficiencies of data input between cursive and printing then we could bring up the same about the QWERTY keyboard. We are still using a keyboard that was designed to slow down typists enough to keep the typebar from jamming. Not to mention the fact that the keyboard is slowly killing our hands and wrists with repetitive stress injury.
How about some future data input methods:Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at January 25, 2005 05:48 AM
Personally, I prefer Graffiti. I can actually read my handwriting, then.
Apparently, there actually is something called dysgraphia. The above posts make me wonder if it might be tied into engineering skills, somehow.Posted by Circuit_Rider at January 27, 2005 03:59 PM
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