Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why I'm Teaching My Kids Cursive Writing

I miss you...

We recently added a new activity to our family's weekend routine.  On Sunday afternoons, I sit my sons at the dining room table with a pencil and some sheets of lined paper. I plop a bowl of candy in front of them for "motivation" and begin our weekly lesson in cursive writing.  For 30 minutes, they loop and slant their way through the alphabet, their names and a few other words.  This is not always a joyful family experience and it is often characterized by resistance and frustration about why they're the "only kids in their class who have to learn cursive". 

I became concerned when another mom told me that the Toronto District School Board had dropped handwriting from the curriculum. While that is not actually true, whether it is actually taught is up to individual teachers (like so much else) and it's definitely not a priority.  Even if it is squeezed in here and there, it's unlikely the kids will practice it enough to become proficient. 

While I wasn't labouring under the misconception that my kids were spending hours perfecting a scripted "d" while their teacher rapped the hands of those who went outside the lines, I was shocked and saddened to hear that it wouldn't play a vital role in their education.  I understand it's a dying art and it's not like I also expect them to master the abacus or slide rule, but I just hadn't prepared my mind (and my emotions) for the reality that they might never learn how to write properly.  

According to the experts, font is the future, and I can't say I disagree. My kids will graduate into an extremely competitive global environment and need to be adequately prepared with true 21st century skills.  There's no time to focus on things they won't use and in fact, many adults who grew up learning cursive don't even use it anymore.  Thanks to chip and pin technology, we don't need to sign our name when we use our credit cards and people take notes on their tablets or smartphones. Brides send thank you notes by email (when they send them at all), long distance correspondence takes place electronically and I can't remember the last time I received a postcard from a vacationing acquaintance.

I don't think of myself as a Luddite, and yet, putting pen to paper is such a fundamental part of my life that I just wasn't prepared to let it go. To say I love cursive writing is an understatement.  At conferences, I'm often the only person at my table taking notes the "old-fashioned way".  I write elaborate to-do lists and get a thrill every time I stroke my pen through a task that's completed.  I send handwritten thank-you cards all the time and write out almost 50 Christmas cards each year.  To be fair, I am gifted with the ability to write very neatly.  It has always come easy for me and I realize that for many people, no amount of practice can improve their messy scrawl.

But, while I have a tendency towards nostalgia, my desire to teach my kids cursive is not fueled purely by emotion.  According to researchers, writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate.  Cursive calls upon many different parts of the brain while printing and typing only use the left hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with linear, logical and sequential functions.  As well, handwriting reinforces reading and spelling, develops motor memory, teaches students to focus and may help them remember what they learn.  This last part rings true for me.  Despite their claims that the medium isn't important, I find it hard to believe that people who take notes on a laptop, while simultaneously checking emails and Facebook, are taking in as much relevant information as someone who is writing what they hear.

One could also make a case for the discipline developed when kids practice anything over and over, whether it's piano scales or soccer kicks. By allowing them to go directly from printing to the keyboard, are we denying today's children the confidence that comes from mastering a skill they have struggled with? 

And, as handwriting analysts (themselves a dying breed) will attest, the unique way in which our writing flows says so much about our personality, character and intentions, in a way that Helvetica never will.  A person's handwriting is an extension of who they are and   it's recognizable.  I feel an emotional tug when I receive mail addressed with my mom's patient, consistent script.

And so I plod along with my insistence that my kids learn to write properly.  I realize that short of an apocalypse in which all the technology disappears, it's a skill they won't use but all parents seem to have a couple of things they're "irrational" about.  Some parents think I'm crazy for doing this and I think they're crazy for giving an 8-year-old a Facebook account.  As parents, we make many decisions based on pure gut instinct and hope that they will turn out to be wise. 

What are your thoughts on teaching kids cursive?  Colossal waste of time or valuable learning opportunity? 


  1. Like the post!
    Do you have space around the table for two more kids? I'm trying to get them to start daily diaries for the same reasons.

  2. Keep at it Cyrus. Once we got past the initial whining about how unfair it was, they started to like it and are now proud of their results and secretly, I think they think it's cool that they can do something their friends can't do.

  3. I'm feeling the same frustration. I will have to teach my children cursive as well. As you mentioned, font is the future. This may be so, but then why aren't the schools teaching children to use the keyboard before they let them use computers? My son is in Grade 4, is starting to get lengthy writing assignments, and has no basic tools for completing them. He can only print. He knows how to 'use' a computer, but not how to type.

  4. I hear you. My 8 year old has not yet learned keyboarding skills at school yet his teachers regularly suggest he type out lengthy assignments. I don't want to do it for him because that defeats the purpose but when I look at the work posted outside his classroom, it is clear that many parents have done the typing (unless their 8-year-olds have a perfect grasp of spelling and grammar already :))