Remember getting your pen licence? That enshrined document among Australia’s school-going youth, marking the rite of passage from cheap scribbler to noble, professional scribe. Those endless hours spent painstakingly connecting one letter to another, sewing the alphabet into seamless elegance, seemed finally worth it.
But was it? For years among experts and educators, the point has been moot.
In 2010, the United States dropped cursive handwriting from its Common Core Standards. In a fast-digitising world where pen and paper seem to be going the way of the chalk and blackboard, who needs it? Couldn’t kids’ and teachers’ time be better spent learning more future-ready skills, like coding or saving us from climate change or something?
Or, as professor of Early Childhood Studies at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education Nicola Yelland argues, how about we quit imposing our false nostalgia on the new generation, bin rote learning, and create pedagogies around inquiry and imagination instead.
Yelland attracted heat in 2015 after voicing as much (and more) in her article for The Conversation, entitled ‘Teaching Cursive Handwriting is an Outdated Waste of Time’. Writing with “joined letters of consistent size”, sloped when appropriate, remains in the Australian Curriculum. Four years on, Yelland’s exasperation with this fact has also endured.
“When you have young children starting school, they have emergent literacy,” she says. “Literacy is about the printed word, about reading text on signs, on television and other new technologies. And the text they see is printed. It’s uppercase and lowercase. It’s not cursive. We encourage emergent literacy, and then suddenly in grade two, we give them this new script they never see in their everyday lives. It’s crazy!
“Are we going to make all children do cursive because there are some handwritten cards by Hallmark – capitalism at its worst – and handwritten historic documents so the single person in the class who will become a historian can read them?”
Ruth French, a lecturer in Educational Studies at Macquarie University, acknowledges the original reasons for cursive no longer apply.
“Cursive was historically important because of the physical way in which the ink was transferred onto the paper,” she says. “It minimised lifting a quill, which minimised chances of the ink blotting.” Now, we have slightly more advanced writing technologies. The ballpoint pen was itself a remarkable anti-smudging achievement.
In the years since 2010 however, 21 US states have either introduced regulations or laws to enforce it as a requirement in schools. The revival has been attributed to an array of factors, including nostalgia, a defence of American values (some of the most important founding documents in US history were set down in inky quill, after all), anxieties around perceptions of class, and the idea that some valuable ‘essence’ of identity is distilled in one’s script.
Should we care if grandma shakes her head when her birthday cards aren’t written in a fine, idiosyncratic hand? Are there any other more tangible, cognitive benefits to mention? Could indeed the rest of the world learn from France, which teaches kids cursive before print?
French, who used to be a primary school teacher herself, thinks it still has a role.
“The main benefits from cursive really flow from the fact that if you can do it efficiently, if you have automaticity, then it’s faster than printing,” she says. Automaticity? I ask.
“When don’t have to think about it,” she helpfully replies. “Like changing the gears on a manual car. When you don’t have to think about putting your foot on the clutch, that’s when you have automaticity. It’s the same with handwriting.”
If you have obtained this fluency – and French acknowledges not all students will – then this is an enormous advantage during exams, which remain handwritten.
Yelland points out that this may very well change in the future, and advocates for as much.
Cursive “is like a symphony, like an opera, like a ballet,” she says. “I appreciate its beauty. But as a functional, everyday thing, it’s redundant.”
Yet even if students of the future sweat over digital keyboards rather than papers during tests, a separate case may still be made for cursive.
French points to a 2014 study, ‘The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard’, which showed students who wrote down their lecture notes had performed better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on their laptop.
“The students that used laptops were getting more of the lecture down – but they weren’t processing what was being said,” French explains.
She tells her own university students: “Your job is not to write everything down. Your job is to think about what are the main points you need to remember. It’s not about transcription, it’s about learning.”
While the study didn’t differentiate between print and cursive, the factor of speed here could be key. If you didn’t have the ability to write in cursive, handwriting notes would likely be too laborious and slow. Under these conditions, who wouldn’t throw their pen to the side and take the keyboard tapping path? Which, if you agree with the study’s conclusions, could result in shallower processing of content.
Yelland does not agree. When I mention the research, she audibly snorts her contempt. “It was flawed in so many ways,” she retorts. It wasn’t the medium that contributed to the difference in results, but the manner in which the notes were taken, she says. She also points out that, given most lectures are now recorded as audio and downloadable as slides, the art of note-taking itself needs to be retaught. Controversially, she also challenges the very idea that cursive is the fastest method of handwriting.
“I’m not sure how cursive will go,” admits French. “I’m not a futurist.” She predicts somewhere down the line, it might become a more artisanal, specialist skill; a commerce-driven niche for those who create beautiful scripts for shop windows or chalkboard signs.
“Personally, I like having a choice though,” she says. “If you’re not teaching cursive at all, you’re taking away that choice.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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