Schools are increasingly removing cursive from their curriculum. In fact, Common Core took out cursive altogether, a move which prompted widespread criticism.
But with young people, and society in general, relying more and more on keypads to communicate, what’s the point of learning a second form of handwriting? Shouldn’t print be enough?
Besides the evidence suggesting that cursive is the best way for students with dyslexia to see and comprehend the written word, author of The Legacy Letters and cursive advocate Carew Papritz argues there are enormous benefits beyond just that — and they will be lost if schools and parents don’t reintegrate cursive into a child’s essential learning.
- GMP: Can you provide a short summary of what benefits students lose when they are NOT taught cursive?
Carew Papritz: One of the most fascinating accomplishments a student loses is what I call the “Write of Passage.” A short while ago I was helping this 4th grade student in an after school handwriting class who was trying to write her name in cursive for the first time. She struggled to get the letters to connect perfectly and to get the right slant. Over and over she rewrote her name so that the spacing and the height were all “perfect.” When she was done, she turned to me and announced with a world of newfound pride in her voice, “Now I’m an adult.”
I had forgotten all about that amazing rite of passage and how much it meant to me as a child. As adults, we forget how immensely important it is to want to become an adult, and learning how to write your name — not print — was one of those rites of passage. Even as a burgeoning writer at the age of ten, I wanted to write my name with all the character, flair, and confidence of all those amazing artists and writers before me. And those writers were not just novelists. They were also idea makers. The ones whose “John Hancocks” we see at the bottom of our Constitution. Can you imagine this powerful document with signatures printed as if done by kindergarteners?
Kids print — adults write.
While losing this “Write of Passage” is sad, our biggest concern as parents, and as a country, should be why reading comprehension is falling off the cliff. One of the major reasons is that our kids are now learning to write first by the “click or tap.”
When a child taps an “A” on a keyboard, they might as well be tapping a “Z,” as far as their brains are concerned. When a child physically writes the letter “A” for the first time, he or she sends an electrical signal to their brain that imprints that “A” on their neurons. When they read an “A” on a page, they access the “A” they already know in their brains.
But if they tap or click an “A” on a keyboard or a tablet, they get the same effect as if they type a “K” or a “Z.” There’s no physical relationship to the letter. It’s all the same “tap or click” to the brain.
Because kids are not using their hands to write, they’re not training their brains to “see” the letter. Thus the ability to connect written letters to the written page becomes more and more problematic at a younger and younger age.
Conversely, when a child learns to write an “A,” they then learn to connect it to the “A” on page —and that’s where the magic begins. For when they read, they learn words which help them to communicate ideas. They learn to think. They learn to rethink and figure out stuff. By rethinking, they learn to imagine. And before you know it, they are communicating and creating the ideas and thoughts they have imagined.
They are learning to express themselves. All because of writing an “A.” Athletes don’t become great overnight. They have to physically train their muscles to become stronger and to work in great coordination to obtain their ultimate performance. Learning to read, comprehending what you have read, and communicating that comprehension is no different. The brain needs to work out to become strong. There are no shortcuts.
- GMP: Do you think the shifting focus to test scores that has taken place over the last few decades has impacted the decision to stop teaching cursive? Or is it more a reflection of the increased use of keypads for writing, as handwriting overall becomes more obsolete?
Carew Papritz: I have a good friend who is a math teacher. He teaches around 180 days a year, of which one-third of that time is devoted to tests outside his classroom. Why have we made this “teaching to the test” a priority in our society? Why are we choking our kids on tests?
In our data-driven society, we have come to not respect that which we can’t easily quantify.
If we can’t easily quantify it, we can’t easily test it. And if we can’t easily test it, then we don’t want to learn it. How easily do you think we can test creativity? The arts? Music? Handwriting? Even playing? We can’t — so we don’t.
Want to teach a dog to roll over? Easy? Teach it the same thing over and over again and eventually it will learn to roll over.
But that’s not learning. Learning is acquiring how to think. How to reason. How to solve problems.
But our education system is now constructed to “teach to the test.” Ask teachers what they think of this and most will give you an answer and an earful. But since teachers are not the policy makers, where did all this testing come from?
“Show me the money.” Testing used to be done by school districts who only required the test sheets. Now you have multi-million dollar companies who run the testing from A to Z. Do you think teachers want to give more tests? Nope. But testing companies want you to have more tests and they convince politicians, who can convince governors, who can convince school boards, who then have to have testing to make sure that kids are doing well in school.
These tests don’t test everything. They only test that which is easily testable. So not only is the fox in the henhouse, but the hens are lining up to get in. And the real kicker is that most of these people who make these tests have never taught a class in their lives.
But why listen to teachers? Nowadays they are seen more as the enemy than ever. It’s one thing when kids don’t want to go to school. That’s normal. But with our recent infatuation with public officials degrading our teachers, we better look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what the devil is going on.
Kids hate the tests. Teachers hate the tests. Parents are too busy to even care. And somewhere the fox is sitting fat and happy because he’s permanently in the hen house.
Now that “we the people” are so certain that we are making this decision to devalue creativity and self-expression as a priority, why is business crying out for creative people? Why are we so quick to get rid of a program like the National Endowment of the Arts when by losing the arts we are trying to get rid of one of the backbones of our American economy? Why are we trying to so desperately get rid of the very thing that countries all around the world are constantly trying to figure out how to do better than us but we do it naturally? We create.
And creating is not a testable subject. There’s a whole myriad of ways to approach looking at the world. And that’s why the arts and all the fuzzy-wuzzy, non-testable ways to learn how to think, and express, and reason, and fail, and recreate are so fantastically valuable to our existence as a country.
Do you know that one of the biggest buzzwords in business is creativity? Businesses are crying for creativity in their ranks. Everyone, from insurance companies to tech to oil companies, wants creative employees.
But because we don’t prioritize creativity and self-expression in our schools, we get what we pay for. And businesses get what we pay for.
- GMP: What responses does your advocacy for cursive most often elicit from schools? From parents? From kids themselves? Is there an appetite out there to maintain cursive curriculum? How much investment is required for parents who decide to teach their children cursive at home?
Carew Papritz: I believe that cursive handwriting is the creative canary in the coal mine — and it’s slowly, almost imperceptibly dying. In our 24/7, technology-drenched, social-media drowning world, we are too busy to notice and too busy to care that we are losing the ability to learn how to self-express — by developing and harnessing the creative side of our nature.
We let our apps do our thinking. We converse by tapping not by talking. We don’t indulge in daydreaming — that’s boring.
If we are not constantly and addictively stimulated all the time by some electronic device, we get DWS, “Digital Withdrawal Syndrome,” and have to plug into something before we, god forbid, have to spend “unvirtual” time with ourselves or others.
Sometimes I need to shock people with the Steve Jobs story. In a New York Times interview with Steve Jobs, a reporter assumed that Jobs’ kids lived on iPads. Jobs replied, “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
The reporter was dumfounded. He assumed that the Jobs’ house was “like a nerd’s paradise: that the walls were giant touch screens, the dining table was made from tiles of iPads and that iPods were handed out to guests like chocolates on a pillow.”
“Nope,” Mr. Jobs told him, “not even close.”
Steve Jobs was first an artist. It’s because of his love for fonts that you have the modern cell phone you carry in your pocket. Because of his love for the design of letters and their emotional impact — he created that which we didn’t know we needed or wanted because he imagined that which we couldn’t see. That’s the job of an artist. That’s imagination.
Sometimes you just need to shake people from the mental lethargy and get them looking through a different kaleidoscope. When I ask people why they think so many computer programmers write music and musicians write computer code? They’re surprised to learn that both use algorithmic languages — yes, music is an algorithmic language! When I enlighten them how testing companies are “testing out” the arts, they are always amazed. When I explain the dynamics of how the brain learns to read through writing, I always get “Wow, I didn’t know that.”
My job as an advocate for cursive writing is to get everyone thinking differently, and for them to consider that losing handwriting is part of a greater societal push to diminish self- expression through the vehicle of the arts.
When I give parents or administrators my “cursive waltz,” they immediately all want to learn the “cursive dance.” But kids will be kids. If you give them vegetables and tell them it’s good for them, they probably won’t like them. Tell them that Beyoncé and Taylor Swift eat vegetables, and they’ll probably gobble them down.
Cursive, like much of school, will still be the vegetables that kids won’t know how good it is for them for them until later in life.
The biggest investment for parents who want to teach their kids at home?
Remember — if you love it, they’ll love it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote The Legacy Letters — to get parents and kids talking about life and then doing life together. That’s what an inspirational book is all about. To inspire action.
And that’s the great beauty of having kids and one of the best parts of parenting — giving your kids your inspiration. Your curiosity. Your love of life!
Thus, if you’re really committed to giving your kids the gift of being able to write cursive, then practice what you preach. Put away the phone, tablet, or laptop and sit down with your kids to learn writing. Show them the importance of writing cursive in real life.
Write thank-you letters together and do it in cursive. Write the grocery list in cursive. Write grandma and grandpa, who would love a cursive letter. Write birthday invitations in cursive. Think of what a wonderful gift you are giving your child, who will someday be able to write real love letters, real thank you letters, and real letters of life, rather than just e-mailing or texting like the rest of the world does.
Cursive writing — that’s a real living legacy you are giving to them that will last a lifetime.