Robert Baier, a forensic document examiner, recently wrote a piece on penmanship for Fox News focusing on an interesting question: should school continue to teach cursive writing?  This is a compelling topic for many reasons, not the least of which is its recent application in the Trayvon Martin case.

The infamous “Witness 8,” AKA “Dee Dee,” according to the Prosecution, wrote a letter to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.  This is a matter I addressed in Update 26   of the Martin series, but it illustrates many of the issues revolving around the teaching of cursive writing.  First, however, let’s examine Baier’s thinking:

Many school systems in this country no longer teach penmanship, especially cursive writing. I strongly disagree with their decision to discontinue teaching penmanship.

The entire financial and legal system in the United States is based upon signature identification. Your driver’s license, passport and almost all forms of identification require a signature. If you have signed, witnessed and dated a document it is legally binding.

Baier’s argument is obviously based on legal and practical concerns:

Will the youth of our country revert back 100 years and create an X on a document for identification because they don’t know how to write? There must be enough complexity in a signature to be able to make a proper identification of the author. I’m sure everyone has seen signatures that appear to be nothing more than perhaps an “O” and a line.  It is much easier to emulate that person’s writing.

Baier briefly touches on an important point:

Handwriting is a physical act. Some students learn best by listening to what is being taught, some by seeing what is being taught and some by physically writing notes on the subject. It has been demonstrated that the more ways the material is given by the instructor, the more learning will take place.

What about the case against cursive writing?  Some note that it’s old fashioned, rapidly becoming displaced by keyboarding—even texting, which for most is accomplished via thumbs—in a time of rapid computerization.  Many teachers and educational theorists suggest that individual pieces of technology, such as Apple’s iPad, will absolutely revolutionize education, making anachronistic skills such as handwriting.  Other anticipate not quite yet developed technologies such as iPhone like devices with voice recognition software that would render handwriting of any kind all but obsolete.

Here is a screen shot of the letter purportedly written by DeeDee, then 18, or in most circumstances, a high school senior, the recipient of 12 years of practice in writing.  It is, in terms of the writing of high school students, unremarkable.  It is no worse than most, and actually better than some in most ways.  For those interested in its significance in the Martin case, a visit to Update 26 will be instructive.

Dee Dee Letter

The letter has these common characteristics:

(1) It is written in cursive and is easily legible.  This is more common for girls than boys (female teenagers tend to have far better small muscle control than teenage boys).

(2) There is no real use of paragraphs.  This too is common in teenage writing.

(3) Punctuation is minimal and run on sentences are common.

(4) There are relatively few spelling errors—most teenagers make more.

(5) Sentence structure is elementary, almost entirely simple sentences.

(6) Transitions are equally simple.

(7) The format of the letter is only partially correct, missing an address and salutation.

Interestingly, some students write better than they speak, and vice-versa.

Based only on this sample, DeeDee’s (alleged) writing would be in the upper 50% of my tenth grade students in many ways, particularly legibility.

There are other concerns, however, and among the most important is time.  My experience is entirely in secondary education.  There is a world of difference between secondary and elementary teaching, so in this, I rely on my elementary colleagues.  By the time I first meet them, my student’s handwriting habits have been long established.  They can be changed for the better, but it takes time and effort most kids aren’t terribly interested in expending.

In the last decade, I’ve lost easily one third of my curriculum to mandatory high stakes testing.  I spend two full months prior to the tests engaging in virtually nothing but drills.  I lose at least a full week of classes in “benchmark” tests demanded by my school district.  This year, the testing process itself will kill at least two weeks of classes. I also lose three weeks due to five minutes being drained from each of my classes all year to make a “tutoring” period for test preparation.  If you’re outraged by that, by the incredible loss of educational opportunity, good for you; you’re paying attention to reality.

According to my elementary teaching colleagues, in their schools, matters are much worse.  They spend essentially the entire year drilling and preparing for state tests.  The entire year.  Because the tests are given in April and May, only a tiny portion of the school year is not devoted to test preparations, which include even more frequent benchmark testing.

I have little doubt this is so.  By the time students reach me in the 10th grade, they have serious deficits due to the lack of time devoted to the traditional curriculum.  Most of my students can’t define a noun or a verb or identify them in a sentence.  Forget any knowledge of adverbs, gerunds, or anything similar.  Whatever skill they have in writing is due to repetition rather than any real knowledge of sentence and essay structure.  They know how to write the essays necessary to pass tests, but that’s very limited and low-level knowledge.  They do know how to type, but for most, not with a high degree of skill.  Notice my use of “type” rather than “keyboard.”  It rather dates me.  The handwriting of many is mediocre at best, and many prefer to print rather than writing in cursive, which is a blessing as their cursive writing is generally poor and borderline illegible.

The point: there is little or no time for teaching and practicing cursive writing–or much of anything else.

There is no question that kids need instruction in handwriting.  It would be best that they have the time to properly learn and practice cursive and printing.  This has little to do with the need to develop a distinctive signature.

Developing small muscle skills is important for all human beings, particularly boys and particularly in elementary school.  It is intimately involved with learning the alphabet, which is foundational to communication and learning.  But these skills go beyond the practical act of handwriting.  Writing builds vital neural connections in the brain, connections without which, other foundational connections are difficult or impossible.

Children are required to study math, English, history and every other discipline not just because they provide practical benefits, but because they are developmentally vital.  Few children will remember or use the formulae they learn and practice in algebra, but they’ll have far more capable and flexible brains for having the experience.  The same is true of other disciplines.  Studying music builds the brain and body in ways that studying history cannot, and studying English builds the brain in ways that studying science can’t.

Once upon a time, this was intuitively recognized and appropriate time was built into the elementary school curriculum.  But now, keyboarding is also mandatory and nearly equally time-consuming.  Add in the overwhelming drive to prepare students for mandatory testing, and handwriting—and the irreplaceable brain development it enables–will be the inevitable loser.

Unfortunately, the public has been sold a bill of goods.  For busy parents, or those who simply prefer to remain uninvolved, yearly test scores many give the illusion of development, learning and accomplishment.  But the truth is there is only so much time in a school year.  Unless and until the public wakes up and becomes much more engaged, a handful of mandatory, high stakes tests will continue to take the place of actual learning and brain development.

Without the time currently subverted by testing, students will lose writing instruction by default.  This vital part of human development will die, not with a bang, but a whimper.