Nautilus

Cursive Handwriting and Other Education Myths

A recent newcomer at one of the home-education groups my family attends explained that one of the frustrations that led her to take her son out of the school system was that he wasn’t being allowed to write stories. It’s something he loves to do, and it seems strange that a school should obstruct that enthusiasm. But the teachers declared he wasn’t ready because he can’t yet write in cursive.

To me this symbolizes all that is wrong with the strange obsession shared in many countries about how children learn to write. Often we teach them how to form letters based on the ones they see in their earliest reading books. And then we tell them that they must learn this hard-won skill all over again, using “joined-up” script. Yet there is no evidence that cursive has any benefits over other handwriting styles, such as manuscript, where the letters aren’t joined, for the majority of children with normal development.

I should make it clear I’m not referring to handwriting itself, often seen as synonymous with cursive. There is ample evidence that writing by hand aids cognition in ways that typing does not: It’s well worth teaching. And I confess I’m old-fashioned enough to think that, regardless of proven cognitive benefits, a good handwriting style is an important and valuable skill, not only when your laptop batteries run out but as an expression of personality and character. I should also say that cursive is a perfectly respectable, and occasionally lovely, style of writing, and children should have the opportunity to learn it if they have the time and inclination. My eldest child loves cursive and has the most elegant handwriting, in which I take great pride. And I love a good Victorian copperplate as much as anyone.

But imposing cursive from an early age is another matter. There should be a sound reason for it, as there should be reasons for teaching anything to children. Yet the grip that cursive exerts on much of teaching practice is sustained only by a disturbing blend of traditionalism, institutional inertia, folklore, prejudice, and bribery. It suggests that what teachers “know” about

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