The Death of Cursive Writing

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Image: poster of The Mystery of Handwriting, a Handbook of Graphology, 1896 / Archie Gunn, artist

As a teacher, I’ve always tried to provide constructive praise and criticism on student work, influenced by articles like “Recommendations for Writing Comments on Student Papers.” But rereading that essay recently, it dawned on me that comments — however substantive — are meaningless if students can’t read them.

I must admit that students have always had a bit of trouble reading my comments. You see, I write in cursive. All of that time-consuming feedback I offer on freshman English papers feature my somewhat sloppy script, learned in grade school. On occasion, students have asked me to clarify a word I’ve written or even to read a whole passage. So I figured my poor penmanship might be one reason why some students fail to follow my suggestions.

But now I’m starting to think the problem isn’t simply my imprecise handwriting, but that some students can’t read cursive at all.

As fewer schools emphasize the importance of learning to write in cursive, more students cannot read it, either. In a 2014 blog post for The Chronicle,Cursive Is an Endangered Species,” Valerie Hotchkiss recounted a student’s request for help with a manuscript. “I assumed it was something along the lines of a medieval Latin text or perhaps even a particularly difficult Marcel Proust letter,” she wrote, but “when I bent over the letter to help, I saw that it was in English and in the very neat, clear hand of John Ruskin. ‘What’s the problem?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I don’t do cursive,’ answered the undergraduate.”

Some parents have complained about this shift, too. A 2014 article in Time magazine described a telephone call to a Tennessee state lawmaker “from a mother who said she wanted to talk about her son, a junior in high school. The woman explained that her son’s history teacher was writing homework assignments on the board in cursive — and her son couldn’t read them.” The lawmaker found a similar pattern across the state.

The problem isn’t limited to the United States. In a May 2016 article for Canada’s TEACH magazine, Meagan Gillmore shared the story of Toronto French teacher Sylvia Chiang: “Some students in her Grade 5 core French class couldn’t understand the lessons. It wasn’t a matter of learning her spoken words. Rather, they couldn’t decipher her written ones. Chiang had been using cursive writing on the board.”

To that pile of anecdotal evidence I would add my own: Of 28 students who turned in final exams in my English course last spring, not one of them wrote their essays in cursive. For the first time, cursive fell entirely by the wayside. Even more troubling, on the final day of class, I gave a short assignment (suggested by Brian Croxall) in which students had to write a letter about the class to my future students. Most “signed” their letter with a printed signature.

That was the moment I decided my handwriting might be more than just a stumbling block for a few students— and might even be something that stood between students and success in my courses. Ultimately I decided that if they could not write cursive — even to sign their names — I would no longer assume they could read it.

It took a while for this problem to sneak up on us at the college level. A CNN report in 2011 noted that, “states don't require children to learn cursive writing anymore. Some 46 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, a set of educational guidelines that do not require cursive writing as part of a school's curriculum.” Those students who weren’t learning cursive in K-12 schools are now showing up on college campuses.

Of course now that they have shown up in higher education — and faculty like me are adjusting our expectations — the stance on cursive seems to be shifting once again, as its defenders have argued in favor of requiring cursive to be taught in elementary schools. My own state, Louisiana, after foregoing the teaching of cursive writing, has reversed course and now requires students to learn cursive starting in third grade.

The debate promises to continue. But until this new shift back toward cursive makes its way to the college level, I’m left with a dilemma: If students can’t read cursive, and some struggle to read my handwriting, what is the best way to deliver feedback on their papers?

Moving to electronic grading would allow me to type the comments, but I don’t find that approach very appealing. While I grade online for the online-only courses I teach, I look forward to reading the paper versions of drafts and essays in my face-to-face classes. I relish the break from the computer screen.

This semester, after close consultation revealed that a few students could not read my comments on their first draft, I typed, printed, and stapled comments to major papers. That has worked well and was less time consuming than I anticipated. However, in the future I am considering referring students to Moodle (our online learning system) to read my comments attached to their files, or using the message function in Moodle.

Of course I could also write all of my comments in print rather than cursive. I’m sure, given time, my printing speed would increase. But is there a better way? Have you faced this issue? What changes have you made as a result?

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