Cursive Writing: Outcome or Art Form?

2 weeks ago I heard an article on the radio regarding the State of Indiana and it’s decision to drop cursive writing from the curriculum in the fall.  I thought it sounded a bit dramatic and when I dug further the truth is that cursive writing is becoming optional in the fall, not dropped altogether.

This raises interesting discussion points. Is cursive writing a measurable learning outcome?  How does it impact student learning in Language Arts (or any written work)?  Is it an art form?  Is it a technology that is on its way out?

Here is a news article from CBS news to set the stage. After clicking play, make sure to click on “Watch on YouTube”.  (I’m sorry for the advertising that will play before the clip).

I was curious to know more about the Common Core State Standards so I did some research.  I found the PDF of the Common Core States Standards for English and Language Arts. In Writing Standards K-5, this is what they have to say about the Production and Distribution of Writing for Kindergarten students:

“With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers”.

For Grade 3 it says this:

“With guidance and support from adults, use technology to produce and publish writing (using keyboarding skills) as well as to interact and collaborate with others.”

Source: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy In History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

Nowhere does it say that cursive writing is an outcome. There is a strong emphasis  placed on keyboarding skills.  At first I was surprised, but then I realized that I cannot remember the last time when I sat down and wrote a document on paper first, then typed it into a word processor. In fact, when I have to write too much down, my hand cramps up (That just may be me getting older)!

The loss of cursive writing may impact the teacher who gives marks for ‘neatness’ and ‘writing’ on written work.  To them I say that this movement away from cursive is freeing. If one truly believes in outcome-based assessment, then neatness and cursive writing CANNOT be a part of assessment.  When we think of literacy and language skills we want students to be able to read, comprehend, and synthesize their ideas and thoughts.  A variety of tools can be used; everything from printed and typed work, stories, podcasts, etc.  If the goal of the student is to communicate their understanding of an outcome, then why does work  need to be written (okay…now I’m diverging from the current topic – I hope to explore this more in a future post)?   To me this means that it is students’ ideas that are to be assessed, not how well they put those ideas down with cursive writing.  The logical conclusion is that cursive writing has become an art form.

If we look back in history we can draw parallels. Consider the Book of Kells. It is renown for its illuminated pages. In the 6th to 9th century, the most learned people were those who could illuminate manuscripts.  Today, do we expect students to illuminate their work?  No.  This form of expression faded away from common practice.  Today, thousands of visitors flock to Trinity College in Dublin to see the Book of Kells not for what information it contains, but the beautiful artwork on the pages.  This is an example of old technology becoming art.

The Star Press wrote a blog entry contradicting the elimination of cursive writing from the Common Core Standards.

“One imagines new generations of young people, able to text at the speed of light, but unable to sign their names, whether on a check (oops, too old-fashioned) or at the checkout line at Walmart, using a stylus.

Maybe we are more technologically advanced in Canada, but I do not remember the last time I wrote a cheque (I tend to use Interac money transfers and on-line banking) or sign at Walmart (moving to chip-and-pin, who’s going to sign anymore?). Signing your own name may become obsolete with digital signatures (Adobe Acrobat Pro comes to mind) and the increased used of biometric data.

So back to my theme of Engaging and Motivating the Middle Years Student.  In my experience I find cursive writing can demotivate students for two reasons.  They find it time intensive (both physically and cognitively) to cursive write.  Second, when I cursive write on the board (which is not all that often) many cannot read what I have written.  I already see the effect of the diminished use of cursive writing with my students.  When I asked them to sign the class list for their text book most decided to just print their name, or use block letter initials.  I have no issue with this, but some may.

I’m interested to here your thoughts on cursive writing!



One thought on “Cursive Writing: Outcome or Art Form?

  1. Excellent post, Jeff, and I think you’ve illustrated one of the “canary in the coal mine” issues around new literacies. And as a born and bred Hoosier (first 28 years of my life), I am pleased to see that Indiana is at the centre of the issue, at least on YouTube! 🙂

    I would hate to see cursive disappear entirely…it is such an expressive and personal imprint of how we communicate, but is it necessary to communicate effectively? I doubt it for most people and for most circumstances. I don’t know the history of cursive writing, but I’m guessing it evolved from printing (love your Book of Kells example) to speed up written communication. Printing takes more time for most of us, so I’m just taking a wild guess that cursive was a nod to efficiency.

    I also wonder how much longer keyboarding will be with us. After all, it is a pretty crude way to knock out words and phrases, don’t you think?

    But in the long run, I hope there is some attention, and some research, into what is special about reflective and semi-permanent writing. What happens to us when we sit down to write something carefully and deliberately? What is lost if all of our communication strategies become essentially oral? What will happen to the beauty of language and the careful turn of phrase that seems to happen only when we sit and stare at a blank screen or piece of paper and puzzle about how we want to express ourselves?

    Some of the cardinal virtues of writing are clarity, economy, precision, grace, and elegance. In our attempt to serve the first two with increasingly efficient communication technologies, I hope we don’t sacrifice the last three.

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