HETRICK: Let's do the write thing; cease the cursive meddling

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Bruce Hetrick

My mom, now in her late 70s, has beautiful cursive handwriting. It swirls and flows, gracefully and unpretentiously dancing from letter to letter, word to word, sentence to sentence.

My mom’s cursive handwriting is virtually identical to her sister’s, who’s now in her mid 80s.

It’s also a spitting image of my cousin’s, now in her mid 50s.

That our family and our public schools could turn out two generations of such lock-step legibility is, well, something to write home about.

So I tried. I really tried.

The public schools in Nebraska and Indiana did a fine job teaching me how to clearly print my letters and numbers.

Once I’d mastered that, my teachers attempted, for years on end, to make cursive writing as natural to me as breathing or riding a bicycle.

But try as they might, I preferred to print. I was faster at it. It was easier to read. (To wit: Many years ago, while still trying to conform to the social norm of cursive formality, I wrote a quick note and handed it to a hotel clerk to relay to a colleague of mine. The clerk took one look at the indecipherable scrawl and asked, “Are you a doctor?”)

Thus, as soon as I survived Mrs. Gerig, my last mandatory-cursive teacher at Fort Wayne Snider High School, I reverted to printed handwriting and never looked back.

Where I shortchanged myself 40 years ago was taking only one typing class—the worst grade I ever received in junior high or high school. Oh, how I wish all those hours and days and years of painstaking cursive exercises had been invested, instead, in more typing classes with Mrs. Curry.

Instead, unprepared as I was by the Fort Wayne Community Schools and my own poor course selections, I had to go cold turkey.

As a college sophomore you see, I landed a summer internship with a newspaper in Colorado Springs. Fresh from my first assignment, I sat down at my newsroom desk and started writing my story by hand.

“What the #@*& are you doing?” asked the curmudgeonly New York City newspaper veteran at the next desk.

“Writing my story,” I said.

“What the #@*& is that in your hand?” said the curmudgeon.

“A pencil,” I said.

“A pencil? A pencil?” said the curmudgeon. “This isn’t a #@*&ing monthly. It’s a daily. Put down the #@*ing pencil and type the damn thing.”

Oh, Mrs. Curry, why hast thou forsaken me? And why didn’t I listen to all of your wise lessons about the quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog?

Fast forward four decades.

Thanks to e-mail, text messages, instant messaging, blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, PowerPoint and other electronic communications, my twin sons have almost certainly churned out more written communication in their 24 years of life than my mom, my aunt and my cousin in their 220 combined years.

Unlike my cursive kin who write cards and letters from time to time, my keyboard-savvy sons communicate constantly, instantly, incessantly.

And yet, for the second consecutive year, some Indiana legislators, nostalgic for the good ol’ days of their own education, want to mandate cursive writing in the keyboard-driven, 21st-century Indiana school curriculum.

Judging from my own experience, cursive was a waste of educational time and money 40 years ago. It’s an even bigger waste of time and money today.

From what I’ve seen as a university professor, the young people in my classroom have no need to take or read notes in cursive. Most type notes directly into their laptops, smartphones or iPads. If they do write something down with those old-fashioned instruments called pens and pencils, printing works just as well as cursive—if not better.

Parents concerned about future generations’ ability to read cursive need only scroll through the selection of fonts available on the average Mac or PC. If reading (vs. penmanship) education includes those artsy letter forms, then cursive writing will almost certainly be readable, as well.

Besides, do we have to teach our kids the wonders of 8-track tapes so they can appreciate 1970s rock?

Must all children learn to drive horses and buggies so they can understand their great-great-great-grandparents’ mode of transportation?

Must our students learn petroglyphs so they can interpret their ancestors’ cave drawings?

Of course not.

But the biggest issue here is where we draw the line between effective policymaking and legislative, pet-peeve meddling.

National education leaders, in establishing standards to make our students competitive nationally and internationally, have dropped cursive as a requirement. Individual school systems may, of course, do as they please.

For my tax dollars, I’d rather see Indiana legislators cease their nostalgia-driven micromanaging, and let Indiana educators do contemporary need-based educating.

It’s the right write thing to do.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


  • Old Habits Die Hard
    It's easier to shake a bad habit than it is the shake a stupid politician.
  • Yes, end the idolatry of cursive
    Handwriting matters ... But does cursive matter? Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters 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.) Often, children are subjected to cursive programs and teachers that strongly discourage such practices. Students learning cursive are taught to join all letters, and to use different shapes for cursive versus printed letters. (These requirements do not align with the research findings above.) When following the rules doesn't work as well as breaking them, it’s time to re-write and upgrade the rules. The discontinuance of cursive offers a great opportunity to teach some better-functioning form of handwriting that is actually closer to what the fastest, clearest handwriters do anyway. (There are indeed textbooks and curricula teaching handwriting 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 a five- or six-year-old if the child knows how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no justification for writing it. (In other words, we could simply teach kids to _read_ old-fashioned handwriting and save the year-and-a-half that are expected to be enough for teaching them to _write_ that way too ... not to mention the actually longer time it takes to teach someone to perform such writing _well_.) Remember, too: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (Don't take my word for this: talk to any attorney.) CITATIONS: /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HANDWRITING STYLE AND SPEED AND LEGIBILITY. 1998: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf and /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. DEVELOPMENT OF HANDWRITING SPEED AND LEGIBILITY IN GRADES 1-9. 1998: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf (NOTE: there are actually handwriting programs that teach this way. Shouldn't there be more of them?) Yours for better letters, Kate Gladstone Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the World Handwriting Contest http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

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