The Value of Cursive


Occasionally, you will hear a report in the news about the value of cursive writing, and whether writing should be taught in schools. Here’s one example:

From the article “Cursive writing is still a mandatory part of the curriculum … But teachers and schools have the discretion to decide how much time to spend on it …”. It seems a simple jump to make: We are becoming more of a technology-based society, so we should teach technology. This philosophy is not only mis-guided, it is poorly thought-out. As we rush headlong to adopt any new technology as it arises, we are forgetting the most important element in the equation: Can technology actually enhance learning?

There are a number of concerns here:

Young children need to learn to print to support language development. Keyboarding, unlike writing by hand, does not strongly support a knowledge of symbolic language. Pressing one key is the same as pressing another, while actually writing the letters links the symbol physically through the hand movement to the visual symbol, that is, visual motor integration. Additionally, learning phoneme groups while writing out graphemes allows us to further strengthen our appreciation of the written symbol by adding the auditory element. Keyboarding eliminates the physical spatial understanding of the symbol and, when this is assumed in the classroom, also assumes a sound understanding of how symbols work and work with one another. While this form of instruction works, combining the act of physical writing, with the sound, along with the resulting symbol is the only way we can truly ‘own’ the symbol and internalize it maximally.

Older children in upper elementary grades need reinforcement with cursive as cursive generally represents a more efficient way of writing by hand, but it is not as critical in language development. Keyboarding is a good skill to learn at an early age, but this does not mean that extended computer time is recommended. Nor should we expect that by teaching a particular technology today a child will be in good stead even 5 years down the road. So, if we trade cursive and handwriting generally for keyboarding skills, not only are we reducing the reinforcing effect in language learning, we are banking on a input technology that is almost certainly going to be replaced soon with newer, more efficient means.

Technology cannot replace experience in real life: Playing with a program that simulates electrical circuits bears only a vague resemblance to actually building the circuit with one’s hands. Reading requires reinforcement of the meaning of the symbols and this must include a physical translation of the symbol by the hand to support the evolving visual meaning.

Rushing to adopt new technologies as instructional adjuncts or substitutes is a mistake, plain and simple. Not only does this move load the taxpayers with years of additional expenses due to maintenance and capital costs, it can actually worsen children’s performance in schools as we move them away from physical manipulation of  the real world.

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