Handwriting: a joined-up case

Image of Gillian Tett

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat with friends in Maryland next to their Christmas tree, I heard their teenage daughter – who I shall call Julia – complain about her recent school tests. But what threw her off her stride were not the multiple choice questions or the essays. The shock came when the examiners asked her to write her name and a brief sentence in “cursive” style (or what British people call “joined-up” writing, as opposed to block print).

Never mind that Julia, 16, was supposed to have learnt cursive writing eight years before at her (excellent) school; or that cursive writing has long been the educational standard in the western world. In reality, Julia almost never uses it. Nor do her friends: an (entirely informal) survey of the American teenagers that I met during the holiday period suggests that almost all of them are now writing in a “printed” style, and struggle to do anything else.

“Nobody does cursive,” I was repeatedly told by kids and young adults, whenever I could tear them away from their mobile devices long enough to discuss the issue. Indeed, they seemed so baffled that I might as well have asked them if they wrote using a quill pen.

Welcome to one of the more subtle – and intriguing – splits that is now opening up as a result of technology. When I was Julia’s age, studying at a British school almost three decades ago, I took it for granted that adults wrote in “joined-up” style. “Printing” letters was considered babyish and, given that I was writing endless school essays by hand, horribly time-consuming.

Most people over the age of 30 probably have similar instincts, particularly in the UK. The British curriculum still requires children to be taught joined-up writing in primary school, and most (but not all) secondary schools view this as the norm for older children too. Meanwhile, in countries such as Germany it has hitherto been mandatory for children to learn a particularly fiddly, joined-up script known as die Schreibschrift (although the German teaching unions have recently been campaigning for this to be simplified).

But in America, cursive script is declining at a striking pace, as computers and mobile devices proliferate – and students increasingly type their essays on keyboards. Officially, it is still taught in many states: in a 2007 survey of first to third grade teachers in all 50 US states, 90 per cent said they taught it. However, the 2009 Core Common State Standards, or the document that tries to lay out a common curriculum in America, does not enforce cursive writing. And some states, such as Hawaii, have formally dropped it in order to focus on keyboard skills instead.

“Cursive writing has been taught for over 300 years in US schools and was once the principal way of communicating. Since the 1970s, however, its importance in the elementary school curriculum has diminished,” a report from the Miami school district office observes. “This has been attributed to the increasing use of technology, the growing proportion of class time spent preparing for standardised tests, and the perception that the time students spend learning to write in cursive could be better spent on more meaningful educational content.”

Does this matter? Opinions are strongly divided. In Indiana, some local politicians are so upset that they are presenting a bill to the legislative body this week to enforce the use of cursive writing in schools. That is partly because they fear the trend reflects a wider decline in educational standards and sloppy thinking. There is also concern that children are getting cut off from their history (if you want to read the Declaration of Independence in the original, you need to understand cursive script). Another practical concern is security. “If you can’t write in cursive, how are you going to sign a legal document?” asks Jean Leising, a Republican state senator who introduced the Indiana bill.

However, many teachers retort that in the digital world, it is a waste of time to force children to write a script they will barely use; the bigger priority should be educational content – and getting kids ready for the computer age. It is keyboards that really matter now in the global economy, not penmanship; or so the argument goes.

Personally, I tend towards the second camp of thought. Although I write in joined-up style (and, until a few weeks ago, vaguely assumed that everyone did), I find writing by hand pretty laborious since I spend my adult life tapping out my ideas on a computer or jotting them down with the shorthand I learnt as a rookie reporter. But whatever your own personal bias, the real point is this: what is happening to cursive reminds us, once again, of the potential for modern technology to upend what we took for granted – and create subtle new types of social divisions.

The next time you sign your name, it is worth pondering on that; irrespective of whether you write in a single flow or – like Julia – are now quietly revolting with every letter you scrawl.


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