Letter to Editor: Cursive counterpoint

To the Editor:

Proponents of cursive handwriting, as a rule, either do not know or do not care whether their quoted sources inaccurately reflect the research.

For example, in a letter published in last week’s Islander, state Rep. Heidi Sampson bases many of her statements about handwriting on the words of William Klemm, a specialist in veterinary neurology at Texas A&M University.

As noted over the years by many of the readers of his Psychology Today blog, those who read for themselves the original research studies that Klemm cites quickly find out that the benefits of handwriting over keyboarding are not limited to cursive, but are inherent in all the forms of our handwriting, including printing.

When Rep. Sampson does cite independent research — as she does with the important work of Dr. Virginia Berninger — similar distortions are made at the Representative’s end. The Berninger research quoted by Rep. Sampson, like other work in the field, established that handwriting — “writing essays by hand” — has certain advantages over keyboarding (this is evident from the Representative’s carefully selected quote) but did not find those benefits to be limited to cursive handwriting. (Essays or anything else, after all, can be written in any of the various forms of our handwriting. What the Representative has done is similar to quoting research on the general benefits of exercise and stating that this research shows that those benefits arise only from one particular exercise done with one particular kind of treadmill.)

Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The actual research is surprising, for those who have not taken a look. For instance, research shows that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below, so that anyone who cares for accuracy can independently check the actual research.)

More recently, the research has also documented that cursive does not objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia.

This is what I’d expect from my own experience, by the way. As a handwriting teacher and remediator, I see numerous children, teens, and adults — dyslexic and otherwise — for whom cursive poses even more difficulties than print-writing. (Contrary to myth, reversals in cursive are common — a frequent cursive reversal in my caseload, among dyslexics and others, is “J/f.”)

According to comparative studies of handwriting speed and legibility in different forms of writing, the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive — although they are not absolute print-writers either. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all: joining only the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving the rest unjoined, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

Reading cursive still matters — but reading cursive is much easier and quicker to master than writing the same way too. Reading cursive, simply reading it, can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds —once they read ordinary print.

Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority — 55 percent — wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.

Cursive’s cheerleaders repeatedly claim the support of research — citing studies that invariably prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident as soon as others examined the claimed support: the claim provides no source or, if a source is cited and anyone checks it out, the source turns out to have been misquoted or incorrectly paraphrased by the person citing it. Or the claimant correctly quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in one of the foregoing.

By now, you’re probably wondering: “What about cursive and signatures? Will we still have legally valid signatures if we stop signing our names in cursive?” Brace yourself: In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.

All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual — just as all handwriting involves fine motor skills. That is why any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

Kate Gladstone

Albany, N.Y.

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