Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Kids Hate Cursive – Part 2 of an interview with Kate Gladstone

“Cursive writing does not mean what I think it does.” – Bart Simpson

Welcome back to my interview with Kate Gladstone. If you missed the first part you can read it here. Now without further ado, I'll jump right into our interview.

I thought the poll in which 90% of first graders voted yes for cursive while 96% of eighth graders voted no, was interesting. Why do you think older kids end up hating cursive?

Kate: They end up hating cursive because they've had to use it! Before they learned cursive, they probably looked forward to it as something that the “big kids” learned. Supposedly, this new way of writing, called cursive, would take less time than printing – but they soon found out it really didn't. If you look at the research on how people actually write – as opposed to the way that people think they write, or think that they should write – it turns out that the fastest and clearest handwriters avoid cursive and break about half its rules. The most legible and most rapid writers tend to join only some of the letters – making the easiest joins, skipping the rest – and tend to avoid using the cursive shapes of letters whose printed and cursive formations disagree. Once the kids have tried to write cursive for a while, especially in the older grades where you need to write more and to write faster, a lot of the consciously or unconsciously figure out that cursive doesn't give you the fastest legible writing after all. Once you realize that – well, it has to affect how much you like and use cursive.

If cursive really provided the best choice for fast, mature handwriting – wouldn't the older students like it more and use it more, not less, than the ones who don't actually have to use it? But the kids who like cursive best are the ones who don't yet have to deal with it.

By the way, do you realize one of the most interesting things about that survey? It came from Scholastic magazine. Children get Scholastic in class from their teachers, who often assign it as required reading – and Scholastic set up the survey so that each classroom's teacher would collect the students' answers and send them in. The students couldn't submit their own answers; every answer had to go through the teacher. Well, how do you answer a survey on cursive – if your schoolteacher gave you the survey and your schoolteacher will see your answer? Do you necessarily say you hate cursive and avoid using it? You might very well say that you just love cursive, no matter how you really feel, simply because you want to please your teacher. (It doesn't take long for most kids to figure out that most schoolteachers like to see cursive writing and want their students to like producing it.) You might even worry – younger kids especially might worry – that the teacher would punish the class if they didn't answer the way the teacher wanted. Knowing how far a kid will go to try to please a teacher, I can't help wondering if possibly even more kids and teens despise cursive than actually dared to say so in class.

Speaking of the 96% of eighth-graders who did admit to opposing cursive: I wonder if the folks who write publish cursive handwriting programs have considered the implications . The survey ran in 2006, so those eighth-graders are now tenth-graders: they're in high school, on the way to college, and in ten or fifteen years they will have become the new generation of parents and teachers. What happens to handwriting textbook publishers when the no-cursive generation grows up? What happens to cursive textbook sales in a few years when 96% of available teachers – eventually, 96% of school administrators and school board members – just say “No” to cursive?

If we want to keep handwriting alive – if the handwriting program publishers want to stay in business – the teaching will have to focus on some more practical and more generally welcome style than cursive.

You teach a more streamlined writing style, which seems to be minus loops and curlicues. What is it called? How was this style developed? Why is it an improvement over the previously accepted style?

Kate: The writing style of those early handwriting books goes by the name “Italic” because the books teaching that style first appeared in Italy, during the Renaissance era. The Italic style then, actually pre-dates the handwriting styles – particularly cursive styles – accepted in schools today.

Italic developed as a replacement for various styles known in medieval times – which tended to be quite fast but also very hard to read – under the influence of an early Renaissance style we call Humanist, which was extremely clear but very hard to write fast. (Letters in most typefonts are actually based on the Humanist style of handwriting which was modified for speed to become Italic.)

Just as people today, if they are trying to “print” for clarity on a form, will unconsciously modify the printed letters somewhat for faster performance without loss of clarity, so the Renaissance scribes also made similar modifications to increase the clarity of their own clear-but-slow Humanist. Like fast “print-writers” today, the Renaissance writers who consciously or unconsciously began Italic handwriting increased their speed by modifying rounded strokes into narrow ovals, modifying vertical strokes into slightly slanted ones, and reducing the number of pen-lifts within and between letters where they could do this without altering the overall shape of the letter.

Italic, then, developed to combine high legibility with high speed. To many people today, it looks like a streamlined style of printing with a few joins: making only the very easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes of letters wherever the printed and the cursive shape of a letter disagree. However, the Renaissance scribes who originated Italic wouldn't have thought of it as any form of “printing” at all: because handwriting came before the printing press, not afterwards.

Naturally, you wonder why a style from 500 years ago would be better than whatever printing and/or cursive you learned as a child, or your children might be learning today. Consider this: The features of Italic – slight slant, print-like letter-shapes, and using only the very easiest joins which means joining only those letters that join most easily and rapidly – are the very same features that we find, today, throughout the handwriting of the fastest and clearest handwriters: no matter how or when or where they learned to write.

Today, the people who write most quickly and clearly are those who don't write a purely printed or a purely cursive style. The quickest, clearest handwriters don't actually write the way that their schoolteachers probably tried to get them to write, in printing or in cursive. Instead of either joining absolutely all letters like cursive writers or joining absolutely none of them like printers, the highest-speed highest-legibility handwriters join only a few letters, by making only those joins that you can actually make without slowing down. Instead of using strictly vertical and often circular forms like most printing styles, or extremely slanted and/or elaborate forms like most cursive styles, high-speed high-legibility handwriters gravitate towards a very slight slant – not quite vertical, but not anywhere near as slanted as most cursive styles today either – and to drop the loops, curlicues, and other features that make today's cursive handwriting styles so different from printing, and so difficult for many writers. Without knowing it, today's most successful handwriters – the high-speed high-legibility handwriters have been quietly re-evolving Italic – without even knowing that this style has a name – because Italic is the style that fits the habits of successful handwriters. At high speeds of writing, Italic is easier to keep in good order – it is less accident-prone – than other styles.

If you look closely at the handwritings of most of the fast, clear handwriters out there who say: “Oh, I just do a sort of fast printing” or “My handwriting is partly printed and partly cursive” or “My handwriting is basically printed, but a few of the letters tend to join from time to time” – you will see that these people are actually coming to write Italic without knowing it. Most of the people who write quickly and clearly are writing a sort of quasi-Italic even though they have probably never heard of Italic. On the other hand – pun intended – most of the people who actually try to follow the rules of school-style handwriting are /a/ not succeeding in this, and are /b/ not among the fastest and clearest handwriters even if they do succeed in actually joining every letter and using all the other stylistic features of whatever writing style or styles they learned in school.

When school instruction doesn't support – but actually goes against – what we know about the best performance of a skill, the school instruction needs to change. If we want basic handwriting instruction to reinforce, not to conflict with, what the fastest and most legible handwriters actually do when they write, then we need to be teaching Italic.

Thanks, Kate. As one who believes cursive should be kept alive for the simple reason that I’d like future generations to be able to enjoy the letters and journals left by past generations, I hope the educators of this country pay attention.

Are your kids/grandkids being taught cursive? How do they feel about writing in longhand?

Come back tomorrow for Part 3, “The Politician Legibility Act.” Find out more by visiting Kate’s website HandwritingThatWorks.com.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Bart Simpson, Kate Gladstone, handwriting repair, cursive, Scholastic, Renaissance, Italic,


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Hey, now I know what to call it! I write in Italic - I mostly print with some cursive.
My mother has the most beautiful cursive handwriting - beautiful, sweeping, even curves & flow. Mine was always so choppy and blocked. It was ugly!

Carol Kilgore said...

This is so interesting. Thanks. This is sort of how I write. It's good to know it has a name!

Anonymous said...

I think with the computer and keyboard people are becoming less concerned with their penmanship, especially the cursive form. I never us it anymore. My signature is the exception.

Stephen Tremp

Helen Ginger said...

I don't think it matters much anymore now that we depend on computers, texting, and other means of writing. Cursive is dying. I'll miss it. Why didn't it go to shorthand? If you want fast and easy, shorthand would seem to be the answer.

Straight From Hel

KateGladstone said...

Thanks for all your interesting comments!

To L. Diane Wolfe and Carol Kilgore: You're not the only ones who recognize Italic as basically a systematized version of what you're already unconsciously doing.

Quite a few of the folks whom I introduce to Italic handwriting say -- as you are saying -- "This is what my writing approaches; I never knew it had a name."

If we taught kids about colors the way we usually teach them about handwriting, we'd be teaching them to name the color red and the color violet ... but to leave unnamed and unexplored and un-thought-about the vast and immensely useful palette of colors in between those two extremes. In handwriting, too, there is a vast spectrum between the stylistic extremes taught in most classrooms as "print" and "cursive." It is this vast and useful scribal spectrum that Italic occupies and thereby helps us handle to best advantage.

Teaching kids that only two kinds of good handwriting have names is like teaching them that a good box of crayons has only two.

It's interesting that Stephen Tremp uses cursive for his signature and for nothing else. Many people believe that legal signatures require cursive: in fact, signatures are legal in any style that the writer habitually uses for his or her signature. (Don't believe me on this -- check with a lawyer, and/or visit my FAQ page whose material on signatures cites legal reference sources on this topic.)

By the way, I've found over the years that some people who'd like to change their signature's style -- or just improve its legibility -- never actually do so because they imagine that changing their signature would somehow make their existing and/or future signatures illegal. Common sense and daily experience show that such a notion is nonsense
Most married women, after all, change their signatures because they change their surnames -- also, consider what would happen if your signature became worse for any reason (such as a stroke or other permanent injury affecting writing). Would you have to stop signing checks and anything else? No -- you'd just go to your bank, fill in a new signature card, and otherwise make your new signature known by starting to use it. The same procedure applies in cases of handwriting improvement. If you were to improve (or otherwise stylistically change) your signature, you would cope with the improvement in the same way that people cope with a deterioration of their signatures: make the new signature known by using it, visit your bank to add a new signature card to your account -- and don't forget to have the bank keep the old card on file, too, in case of outstanding checks!

To Helen Ginger who (like Jane Sutton) will miss cursive when it finally goes the way of hieroglyphs and cuneiform: It's interesting that you'll miss a style which you also recognize as not being the best way to gain "fast and easy" handwriting. I don't pretend that Italic is as fast as shorthand -- but the shorthand systems I've seen are quite time-consuming to memorize, and very hard to keep memorized once you have learned them. (Still, I won't rule out the possibility that shorthand might even make a comeback, since some recent computers accept writing done with styluses -- or fingers -- on the screen. However, shorthand of any form is unlikely to put an end to every other way of writing: as long as kids are learning to read the English language in its present written form, they are probably going to have to learn to write some style of that written form.)

Sandy Naidu said...

Very interesting interview - the poll results did surprise me - but the more I think it does make sense - Penmanship is a key skill to have. Cursive can be hard initially (like with anything new) but will get easier with practice and persistence.

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world