Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Belshaw's World - cursive writing a critical tool in the modern world

From time to time, there have been suggestions that the teaching of cursive writing, what we used to call running writing, should be totally done away with. Better to teach children to touch type, or one of the other skills required for a modern world.

I really hated lessons in running writing at primary school. I don’t have especially good fine motor skills, nor eye hand coordination. Running writing lessons were a misery only exceeded by the obligatory craft.

Ultimately I learned to write and write fast. I had little choice if I was to complete exams. Then, too, at work I faced tight deadlines.

My writing was never neat. Not for me the old fashioned copper plate nor what was called a fair hand.

Typists and secretaries struggled to read my writing, although once they got used to it problems dropped away because I was at least consistent.

Once computers became popular, I stopped using hand writing on a regular basis. Like so many of us, I sat in front of a screen and keyed directly.

Without practice, my hand writing deteriorated quite quickly. My old problems with fine motor skills re-appeared. I also had a very particular problem in my right wrist, a repetition strain injury from all my previous writing.

By the early 2000s, my occasional handwritten notes had become an illegible scrawl.

There was one partial exception to this retreat.

Over the years, I have done a lot of facilitation and training. I enjoy it, while it has also been very useful and sometimes profitable.

As part of this, I used whiteboards and butchers’ paper all the time. This means hand writing.

Through a combination of printing and sometimes scrawl I got the message across. Indeed, I used my bad handwriting as a teaching device, something to entertain but also as an excuse to re-explain.

Had you asked me then whether I thought it necessary to still teach cursive writing in primary school, I could well have said no. Now I have changed my mind!

About three years ago, I started to keep writer’s diaries. I was spending up to three hours each day travelling by train or bus, and wanted to use the time productively.

Part of my writing was simply recording thoughts or notes on things around me. Part was also recording reactions to things that I was reading, including taking research notes for later use.

I actually became quite addicted to the process, beginning what I still call my train reading. This involved picking a book each week from my shelves almost at random that I had not read, or at least not read for a long time.

I got some funny looks on the buses and trains as I sat there absorbed in a book with my notebook in front of me, reading and then scribbling. Some of my best short writing came from this process.

Initially, my handwriting was literally a scrawl. However, as I wrote more I found that my running writing was coming back because it was both neater and faster.

Having re-acquired handwriting, I now find myself using it all the time. It’s just so useful for someone like me: I jot notes in parks and on benches; I use it as an excuse to leave my desk to sit somewhere else while still working; and I find that it’s increased my working speed.

In pre-computer days, you had to work out just what you were going to write before you really started. Too many people with computers just start writing, relying on the edit facility.

Sometimes that’s good. However, it can also lead to slower work, worse English. And that’s bad.

It seems that I have rediscovered the importance of handwriting as a tool. If you ask me now whether the teaching of cursive writing should be abolished in primary schools, I would say no!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 9 November 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

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