The comeback of cursive

The comeback of cursive

Once derided as a relic of the past, handwriting looks poised for a revival

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PARENTS are not the only ones bemoaning the way so many schools have given up teaching children to write longhand. Researchers are also aware that more than mere pride in penmanship is lost when people can no longer even read, let alone write, cursive script. Not being able to exchange notes with the boss or authenticate signatures, for instance, can hurt a person’s chances of promotion. More importantly—and intriguingly—though, learning to join letters up in a continuous flow across the page improves a child’s ability to retain and understand concepts and inferences in a way that printing those letters (and, a fortiori, typing them on a keyboard) does not. It even allows insights gained in one learning experience to be applied to wholly different situations.

Neurophysiologists in Norway and France, for example, have found that different parts of the brain are stimulated when reading letters learned by writing them on paper, rather than by typing them on a keyboard. The movement and tactile response involved in handwriting leaves a memory trace in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which are retrieved when reading the letters involved. Being essentially the same for each key stroke, the feedback from typing lacks the kind of motor memories associated with individual letters. If handwriting reinforces reading, the implications for teaching are huge.

Similarly, researchers in America tested how college students performed when taking notes of a lecture by hand as opposed to using a laptop. While the laptop users took copious (mostly verbatim) notes, they fared far worse than the pen-and-paper scribblers when tested on what they recalled about the concepts and inferences of the lecture. Being slower, taking notes by hand forced those who did so to process what the lecturer was saying and then paraphrase it. This reflection and reframing allowed them to understand and recall the material better. In contrast, typing merely led to mindless processing.

In America, two developments have thrust penmanship back into the public arena. One is the reaction to the Common Core curriculum—a set of national benchmarks adopted recently by a majority of American public schools. This requires legible handwriting to be taught only in kindergarten and first-grade (ie, from age five to seven). Thereafter, the emphasis is on teaching keyboard skills.

The other, more subtle development stems from the way knowledge workers have lately become a good deal less desk-bound. As tablets and smart phones let people capture information while on the move or in the field, the bulky laptop is going the way of the portable typewriter a generation before. Meanwhile, the big strides made recently in software for handwriting recognition are rendering even screen-based virtual keyboards a clunky way of inputting data. One consequence is that employers hiring new staff are prizing the ability to write speedily and legibly in cursive.

As a result, a number of school boards in America have instigated a return to basics—especially time spent learning longhand. So far, more than half a dozen states—including California, Massachusetts and North Carolina—have made teaching cursive handwriting mandatory throughout their public schools. More than 40 other states are currently weighing similar measures.

The concern is over how best to encourage critical thinking, rather than how to help the young communicate. The problem is not that young people are writing less. They are writing hundreds, if not thousands, more words a day than they did a decade or so ago, says Anne Trubek in her recent book “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting”. But this outpouring is done largely by pecking at a keyboard (real or virtual) rather than by pushing a pen across paper. Ironically, in the age of the mobile phone, chatting verbally over the ether has been superseded largely by texting, posting, e-mailing and social networking. Gone, it would seem, are the days of the inky-fingered wretch.

Not all that long ago, the penmanship taught in American schools was the envy of the world. The so-called Palmer handwriting method, adopted widely during the first half of the 20th century, relied on the muscles of the arm, rather than hand and fingers, to guide the pen across the page in a rhythmic, looping motion. In supplanting the slower and more elaborate Spencerian form of handwriting used in America from the 1840s onwards (see the Coca-Cola or Ford logos), the openness and simplicity of Palmer longhand let office workers match the speed of the increasingly popular typewriter.

While well suited for modern times, the Palmer method fell out of fashion in the 1950s. Educators deemed its regimented learning process inhibited free expression. The dogma of the day insisted children needed to be free to express themselves on the page as early as possible. The Zaner-Bloser writing method which gained favour instead taught first-graders to print in manuscript (ie, block letters) rather than learn to form cursive characters; only later would they be taught how to join the characters up into a continuous stream of words. Inevitably, the fad faded, as the burden of adding an extra learning stage took its toll. By then, however, the Palmer company had ceased to publish its landmark text book.

Certainly Ms Trubek is right about the impact technology has had on handwriting. The ballpoint pen is a case in point. Though the idea was originally patented in America in 1888, it was not until László Bíró, a Hungarian journalist, devised a thicker, quicker-drying ink in the late 1930s that the ballpoint (the eponymous “Biro”) became a practical utensil. Even then, it took a couple of decades more for the ballpoint to become cheap enough to rival the pencil, let alone the fountain-pen. Where the original Biro sold for the equivalent of $100 in 1943, the cost had plummeted to less than 20 cents by 1957, thanks to manufacturing improvements made by the French licensee, Marcel Bich. Billions of “Bic” pens and ballpoints from other license-holders have been sold over the subsequent years.

That is both good and bad. Being ubiquitous and essentially disposable, something to write with indelibly is almost always to hand. Unfortunately, the need to press a ballpoint into the paper to get the ink to flow—rather than having it glide like a nib across the surface—not only cramps the writer’s style but also tires the wrist and fingers, forcing the writer to adopt a more upright grip to alleviate the discomfort. Doing so, however, provides less control over the way the loops and letters are formed.

Gel- and water-based inks have eased the problem somewhat. However, by being free to move in any direction, the ballpoint (and its close cousin, the roller-ball) can never provide the “guidance” a relief nib offers through being more mono-directional. That is why, prior to the introduction of the ballpoint, cursive italic script had not changed much since Renaissance times. Whether the writer used a sharpened quill or a relief nib dipped in ink, it was the most comfortable and natural way to write.

Those who have cultivated cursive handwriting often exhibit two quite different styles: a carefully formed “fair hand” for composing formal letters; and a scribble for making hurried personal notes. The two styles may appear different, but either will identify the writer as one and the same person. It turns out that handwriting is as unique an identifier as a person’s fingerprints. Even identical twins who share exactly the same complement of genes have different handwriting. A person may make a passable copy of another’s handwriting, but expert analysts will spot the forgery at a glance.

What makes handwriting a unique identifier stems in large part from where the writer was born, the first language spoken and, of course, the handwriting method taught at school. Individual experiences play a role, as do childhood diseases. Children with ADHD, for instance, can readily be diagnosed from the random nature of their handwriting. Overall, the characteristics that make a script uniquely one’s own include the roundness or pointedness of the characters; their size, slope and spacing, as well as the thickness of the individual strokes. Two other identifiers are the pressure exerted on the paper and the arrhythmic pattern of certain elements. The two latter features are used widely in point-of-sale terminals to authenticate a person’s signature.

To Ms Trubek, a former professor of English at Oberlin College in Ohio, the disappearance of handwriting (or telephone conversations) from daily life does not necessarily signify a decline in civil intercourse. More likely, it denotes the end of one stage in the evolution of communication and the beginning of another—just as the Gutenberg printing press put paid to the livelihood of monks who produced illuminated manuscripts.

Digital ink may well be the Gutenberg press of today. This emerging technology (Windows Ink from Microsoft and Interactive Ink from MyScript Labs are good examples) uses machine learning and contextual analysis to recognise anything that can be written or drawn by hand on a touch-sensitive screen, and then turns it into digital form ready to be searched, stored, shared, annotated and edited collaboratively. The technology can handle free-hand sketches, mathematical equations, chemical structures and musical notation just as readily as cursive handwriting.

With nothing more than a tablet computer, digital ink lets users capture their spontaneous thoughts, as if doodling on paper. Though still in the early stages of its development, the technology promises to turn sketches and scribbles instantly into web pages, polished documents or anything else that needs to be published. Adding digital power to the ancient art of inscribing symbols on surfaces may, indeed, mark the next stage in the evolution of communication. If so, handwriting, far from falling by the wayside, would seem poised for prime time once more.

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