Editorial: Lost arts — and sciences

The fate of handwriting and science will have serious implications for our public schools.

November 19, 2012


Probably most people who read newspapers also write in longhand — “cursive” letters learned by repetition on tablets (that would be paper sheets, not digital devices) that enforced the proper slant (that would be angle) of the letters and the particular formation of capitals and lower-case forms of each member of the alphabet with designated swirls and loops.

It is a sign, for better or worse, that we share an educational background related to a time. It is kind of an age-stamp. And its value has been called into question in an age of computers, printers, calculators and electronic and digital tools

Handwriting. It has produced jokes about doctors. It has been used to analyze personalities. Handwritten letters and notes have been bundled away as family treasures. And it has been imitated by computerized fonts that seek, among other things, to mask those pesky mailed requests for donations as something more personal in nature.

This week the Kansas State Board of Education received a report that seemed to indicate that the teaching of handwriting was being downgraded in importance. In addition, the board also got a troubling report that as many as one in five elementary school teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are reporting science grades on report cards even though they don’t teach science or test students about science.

Technology that is reducing the need for pen, pencil and paper may be at play in curtailing the time spent teaching handwriting skills, but when it comes to science, it’s an emphasis on math and reading assessments that apparently is influencing teachers to spend more time on those subjects, at the expense of parts of the school day that once were, or could be, devoted to science.

The board is dealing with both issues. A shift to new “Common Core” state standards in English language may not provide reassurance to those who favor teaching cursive handwriting, but those new standards do give states such as Kansas some flexibility to add it. The board’s upgrading Kansas science standards also, guided by a National Research Council project. What happens with each of the topics will have serious implications not just for students but for the state as well. Possibly it will lead to discussions of expanding the school year to give educators more time to address science, handwriting and other subjects that get lost or shorted as teachers emphasize the areas on which students are measured on standardized tests.

Now that these issues are getting more public attention, let’s hope that parents and teachers keep themselves informed, and take note. (Perhaps in cursive.)


Kate Gladstone 5 years, 6 months ago

Handwriting matters ... But does cursive matter? Research shows: the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citations appear below)

Even the teachers of handwriting seldom stick to cursive when they are off duty. Earlier this year (January 2012), when the handwriting publisher Zaner-Bloser surveyed teachers at a handwriting conference it sponsored, 55% stated that they write a hybrid of cursive and print styles. Another 8% admitted that their everyday handwriting is printing — only 37% (fewer than two-fifths!) claimed that they themselves write in cursive. (Source: http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf )

When even teachers of handwriting won't practice what they preach — when rules work less well than breaking them — it’s time to re-write and upgrade the rules. Discontinuing cursive may allow teaching some better-functioning form of handwriting tBeth's actually closer to what the fastest, clearest writers do anyway. (There are indeed textbooks and curricula teaching this way. Cursive and printing are not the only choices.)

Reading cursive still matters — this takes just 30 to 60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to 5- or 6-year-old who know how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no excuse for writing it. (In other words, we could simply teach kids to read old-fashioned handwriting and save the year-and-a-half of teaching them to write that way too ... not to mention the actually longer time it takes to teach someone to perform such writing well. That move, in itself, would prevent squandering time and effort urgently needed for science and other crucial learning.) Remember, too: whatever your schoolteachers may have been heard from their schoolteachers, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (Don't take my word for this: ask any attorney.)


/1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HANDWRITING STYLE AND SPEED AND LEGIBILITY. 1998: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf


/2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. DEVELOPMENT OF HANDWRITING SPEED AND LEGIBILITY IN GRADES 1-9. 1998: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

Kate Gladstone Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the World Handwriting Contest http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

buffalo63 5 years, 6 months ago

Let's get something straight from the start. TEACHERS do not dictate the curriculum or what is taught. They are "coached" by the administration (and in some cases the school board) in how much time to spend on what subjects. No Child Left Behind, while meaning well, did more to damage the balance of the curriculum than anything (including "poor teachers"). I know, because my wife and I have been there (my daughter also). My grandchildren were excited when it came time to learn cursive. Now they don't answer phone calls, only text. If my wife or I were still teaching, handwriting would be taught if only informally. There may be some teachers teaching science, again informally, since science is all around us. Science does need to be hands-on and can get students excited about school very quickly. Reading and math can even be taught during science classes. Imagine that!

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