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A child starting kindergarten this fall might only study cursive writing in history class. A growing number of schools no longer require teachers to provide instruction in cursive. Those in favor of dropping “joined up writing” say teaching it is time consuming and can be easily replaced in a world of texting and word processing. Proponents say handwriting helps foster fine motor skills and other cognitive development — and that taking pen to paper is not only a beautiful art form but can be a means of individual expression. Guest host, Susan Page, and her guests discuss the fate of handwriting and penmanship in the digital age.
- Karen Epstein fourth grade teacher at Rockwell Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland.
- Tracey Bailey director of Education Policy for the Association of American Educators and 1993 National Teacher of the Year.
- Kitty Burns Florey author of "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting."
- Anne Trubek associate professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. In 2007, only 15 percent of high school students who took the SATs wrote the essay portion in cursive. A growing number of schools are dropping cursive drills in favor of teaching keyboarding.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about the future of handwriting in the digital age, Anne Trubeck of Oberlin College, and Tracey Bailey of the Association of American Educators. And joining us from the Yale Broadcast and Media Center in New Haven, Conn., Kitty Burns Florey author of "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting." Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ANNE TRUBEKGreat to be here.
MS. KITTY BURNS FLOREYThank you.
MR. TRACEY BAILEYThanks very much.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation, add their own comments on handwriting later in this hour. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850, you can always send us an email at email@example.com and you can find us on Facebook and Twitter where we've already gotten a fair number of comments. So Kitty Florey, let's start with you. Your book is called "The Rise and Fall of Handwriting." Have we seen the fall of handwriting?
FLOREYWell, I don't think it is completely prostrate, but it's definitely on its way down. Even since "Script and Scribble" was published, almost, well, a little more than two years ago, I think that two things have happened. One is that handwriting has declined even more than my book talked about. But the other thing is that as it has declined, its defenders have increased so there's a vocal and really quite activist group out there who wants to preserve handwriting and they're just growing.
PAGEYou know, I'll say we've gotten some really impassioned tweets on the issue of handwriting. We'll be going to those in just a few minutes later in this hour. Well, Tracey Bailey, you're a former teacher, in fact, the former National Teacher of the Year in 1993. Congratulations on that.
BAILEYThank you very much.
PAGEYou were teaching high school in Florida. So why are so many schools dropping the requirement to teach cursive?
BAILEYWell, I think we see a few factors. One is there's a tremendous pressure on schools to produce academic results in reading, writing, math, social studies, science and this is a fundamental requirement for 'No Child Left Behind' and so many state's adequate yearly progress requirements. Teachers are being pressed now -- again, teachers will teach what they're required to, what they're asked to, but we see society changing. We see school boards taking a little bit of the pressure up. We see state Boards of Education saying, fit it in as you can.
BAILEYNow, what it is absolutely essential, though, is legible handwriting. It's that cursive itself has become a little bit -- a little bit less emphasized and that's just something that we see changing over the last ten and twenty years.
PAGESo what do we mean by cursive handwriting?
BAILEYWell, all students in America are taught first print writing and that usually begins even in kindergarten and then in first and second. In Britain, they call this joined-up writing, you know. It's the traditional cursive, the Palmer Method that some may remember from way back. And that's really where we see less and less students choosing to write in script, less and less adults choosing to write in cursive when they're given that choice.
BAILEYThe SAT, you know, 15 percent of the students chose to write in cursive on the SATs, the vast majority don't.
PAGEAnne, you must see this all the time in your classes at Oberlin.
TRUBEKWell, I never see my students' handwriting, printing or cursive because everything is done on keyboards.
PAGEAnd do you think that's a good thing?
TRUBEKI think it's absolutely phenomenal. I mean, the reason why we teach writing, handwriting, cursive initially in those early grades is to allow students to express their ideas, to communicate them and typing and keyboarding allows that to happen in a better way than handwriting and cursive and so it's enabling students to write more and to write better.
PAGEAnd so Kitty, what do you think? Is there a reason to encourage kids to do cursive?
FLOREYYou know, cursive has had, I think, its day and it's over. I think what's really important is that students learn not necessarily cursive, but some sort of reliable fast, legible handwriting that they could use all their lives. And that's not going to fade away, I think, as cursive does when they get to be in fourth or fifth grade. They're not required to use it very often so it just sort of disappears. And I think a lot of adults can say that their old cursive that they learned is pretty debased by now.
FLOREYBut cursive isn't that important. I think what's important is any kind of handwriting that is going to be something that you can use when you need it. And there are other scripts beside cursive. And if a child or a young adult or an adult is printing and the printing is legible and fast, then I don't see anything wrong with printing.
PAGEBut don't we lose something if kids just do not learn cursive writing at all, they print everything in block letters or it's just not a skill they acquire? Is anything lost if that's what happens?
FLOREYYeah, I do think there is a loss, but there is always a loss with change and there's enormous gain as well. People do make judgments based on others' handwriting. If you have poor handwriting, it has been proven that people might consider you less intelligent. On the other hand, there's no correlation between good handwriting and intelligence so keyboarding is actually more egalitarian and democratizing than cursive.
FLOREYSo we'll lose some of that, although it can still be taught, but not necessarily as the main basic skill for writing and communicating.
PAGEWell, is it just then, Anne, a matter of nostalgia, that, you know, I took the Palmer Method and so I want my kids to do the same?
TRUBEKI think there's a lot of that and we've seen historically that whenever a new writing technology is introduced, we become very attached and nostalgic about the previously supplanted one. This has happened with the printing press, with, you know, even the invention of writing in the first place. So this is a pattern that happens over history and it is nostalgia, yes.
PAGEWell, Tracey, what do teachers think about this? Do teachers in the third and fourth grades, where you tend to teach cursive writing, are they glad to be done with this? Or do they think there's something missing?
BAILEYThere's two schools of thought and I've talked to scores of teachers in the last week. You know, a lot of these reports are being driven from state decisions, like Indiana's recently, to not require cursive writing as a state standard. It's interesting, though, that even when states make those decisions to not mandate it, the vast majority if not all school districts still teach cursive as a component of their curriculum. It's just not focused. It's not in the emphasis.
BAILEYThey do that so that students are able to read cursive. They do that so that students are able to do things like sign their names or read some historical documents. But it's not the hour a day or the 45 minutes a day that you might think of from 50 years ago.
BAILEYTeachers are supportive of teaching cursive. It's just not the focus of the curriculum. It's not something that they can spend more than ten minutes a day on.
PAGEHere's a comment from Facebook. Katy has written this. "I think cursive should be taught because I'd imagine it accesses a different part of the brain and/or creativity. I've heard literary agents say that they can tell when a novel has been handwritten or written on a word processor." You're shaking your head, Anne?
TRUBEKYeah, yeah, no. I mean, I do think that cursive does--it's a fine motor skill and there are certain things that it allows us neurologically and cognitively that, yeah, we may lose and that is, like I said before, a loss. But writing style, a voice, tone, these are the things that are really important and whether you're writing in cursive or word processing, that's not going to happen, make a difference.
PAGEKitty, do you agree with that?
FLOREYI do. You know, I'm a writer. I've written a lot of books and I write fiction as well as non-fiction. And I must say that, of course, over the years I have gone from writing them in a notebook and then typing them up on my old manual typewriter to now composing them on my computer. And I have to say I think I write better on the computer than I did before. And that doesn't mean that I don't take a lot of notes in handwriting and I don't sit down and think someplace besides in front of my computer, you know, and make notes on what I'm thinking about in terms of creating a character or doing a bit of dialogue or something. I do do that.
FLOREYBut when I change over to the keyboard, I'm able to manipulate what I've written so much more easily than the old days of literal cut and paste that I can never say that the computer, that the keyboard, is not good for good writing. I think that's absolutely not true. On the other hand, something about sitting down with a pen and piece of paper does focus your attention in a way that I'm not sure that the computer does and I think that if children are losing that, then that's not a good thing. It seems to be part of learning to write. And I don't mean just to write letters, but to write, you know, as a writer. It helps you think, it helps you focus to sit down with a pen and piece of paper.
BAILEYWell, I think what Kitty just mentioned is the process that the vast majority of teachers teach. And again, we want all students to have good legible writing. There are some teachers that still feel very strongly about the teaching of cursive, but all teachers will say take your notes, outline your research paper, and outline what you're going to be writing about. Some will say do that on the computer. Some will say do that in handwriting, if you want. But we see assignments being turned in, even in elementary school, certainly in middle schools and high schools, electronically.
BAILEYWe see teachers that are saying it's so much easier to mark up a paper and tell a student go back and change these few sentences, than here, rewrite this 20-page thing. And I remember as a student, I think we all do, being told rewrite this whole thing. And so there is a lot more of that manipulation that can be done. I think that's one of the advantages of including technology where it makes things better and easier.
BAILEYYou know, if we're doing a research paper or reports for a business, you certainly wouldn't want to have to go back and rewrite something. Students need to live in that world if they're going to succeed in the 21st century.
TRUBEKAnd I think that that idea that there's a certain way of thinking when you have the pen and the paper is associational and cultural and historical, not sort of inbred or natural. Most of us learn to write that way so we have that association from when we were children and these were the first ways we wrote and it was quiet and calm.
TRUBEKBut in America, it's really only -- it's less than 200 years that people have been writing this way. And in the -- you know, if you think, there's been a lot of great writing over, you know, beyond the last 200 years. So, you know, it's because we were taught this way that we have these associations. And the kindergarteners and first graders today may have the same sense of sort of the focus and concentration when they have their keyboard and their screen up.
PAGEOh, how interesting. That's Anne Trubek, she's associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She's also the author of "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses." And Tracey Bailey is also with us here in the studio. He's director of education policy for the Association of American Educators. And joining us from Yale is Kitty Burns Florey. She's the author of "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting."
PAGEWell, I'll say one word in defense of cursive, which is if you're writing the most personal note, a love letter, a sympathy note, well, you certainly write those by hand and not on a computer. Well, we'll take a short break and when we come back, we'll go to the phones, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm this hour. Now, joining us by phone is Karen Epstein. She teaches the 4th grade at Rockwell Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md. Karen, thanks so much for being with us.
MS. KAREN EPSTEINWell, thank you.
PAGESo do you spend any of your school day teaching your kids cursive?
EPSTEINIn 4th grade, we are reinforcing the skills of cursive. The initial teaching of cursive takes place in 3rd grade, which I spent teaching for 10 years and I would spend -- it wasn't a major part of our day. It was a small component.
PAGEDo you think it's important to school kids in cursive?
EPSTEINI think it is very important for them to learn cursive. It's not a major focus, but they do need to be able to read it and to write it in order to communicate with everybody in the world. Not everybody uses it. Yes, computers and media are a great part of our education now, but they still need to be able to read and write it.
PAGEYou know, I wonder if you feel like I think Tracey was saying, many teachers feel that there's such a focus now on the things that you test for, that the things that you don't test for, like cursive handwriting, just gets squeezed out of the school day.
EPSTEINThey get squeezed, but they don't get eliminated. I know when I taught cursive, we'd limit it to 15, 20 minutes two to three times a week. So it wasn't eliminated, but it was definitely condensed. But there is a way to still do it and have it be meaningful and productive without it overtaking everything else.
PAGEYeah, how about keyboarding? Do you spend some time teaching your kids keyboarding?
EPSTEINYes, I do because students need to be able to use a computer appropriately. And if they're going to be using it, they need to make the time that they're on it meaningful. And a lot of the kids come in with a lot of great skills, but they don't know how to type.
PAGEYeah, and what do kids think about this? Do they -- when you were teaching the 3rd grade and now in the 4th grade, do they look forward to cursive drills or to keyboarding drills or do they think it's kind of a chore?
EPSTEINKids are very excited to learn cursive in 3rd grade. That, to them, is like a sign that they're getting older. The keyboarding skills, they are very excited at first. It kind of dwindles as they're getting used to it because just like anything when it's rote memory, it takes a while. But it's an essential skill and that was one of the best skills I ever learned in high school was learning to keyboard. It has made my life so much easier.
EPSTEINAnd I can't imagine being a hunter and pecker.
PAGE...I agree with that. Certainly use it every day. Do you think that there is auxiliary things that happen when kids learn cursive, I mean, in terms of creativity or individual expression? Is there -- are there any spillover effects that you've seen?
EPSTEINSome kids really enjoy it and use that -- use the cursive for everything they do and they enjoy it. And it does tend to be your more creative students or artistic students. And I think it's a good outlet for them. But I don't see it as a downfall for some students. It's not a weakness.
PAGEAnd do you worry about schools that have dropped the requirement entirely of teaching cursive?
EPSTEINI do because if you think about it, when they grow up, how are they going to -- as they go through school, how are they going to read things that are written in cursive? Things are still written in cursive. They have to sign forms. How are they going to sign their name? How can they prevent fraud on their credentials? We're not at the age where we have another way to say that this is what -- this is not my signature or this is. If they're printing everything, how can they prevent that?
PAGEAll right, Karen Epstein. Thank you so much for joining us this hour.
PAGEKaren is a 4th grade teacher at Rockwell Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md. Well, this -- what about her point about signatures? Here's an email from Susan who writes on Facebook, "Call me old fashioned, but don't we all need a signature? To me, a signature is cursive. You have to own your own John Hancock." Anne, you're shaking your head. What do you think?
TRUBEKWell, there are electronic means to provide your signature now that are very common. I don't even think you need your signature on your tax return anymore. So I do think that that is something that is being phased away through, you know, other means. I mean, I'm not saying no one should learn how to write their signature. I just don't think it's an essential, you know, necessary thing. We have electronic signatures that are now legal.
PAGEDoes it make it easier, though, to -- there are many times you sign your signature on a credit card receipt or on a legal document when you buy a house, does it make your signature easier to forge if it's -- if you don't have a kind of drilling in cursive? Do -- Kitty, what do you think?
FLOREYI'm sure it does. I don't know much about electronic signatures, but I have to say that even though I distressed the whole nostalgia argument, something -- you know, you just get this awful sinking feeling when you think that people are not going to have a signature anymore, you know, that they are not going to be writing their names, they're not going to need to write their names. I know it may be irrational in the digital age, but it's sort of horrifying to think that.
FLOREYAnd one of the outgrowths of this that I think about a lot, just because I am a writer and I like to read the letters of writers, is that we won't have letters to each other anymore. And, you know, the great letter writers of history, you know -- I have a bookshelf that has nothing but writers' letters in it and the letters of E.B. White and Elizabeth Bishop and James Thurber and Van Gogh. Van Gogh's letters are incomparable and we'll never have anything like that again.
FLOREYAnd, you know, those two things, no signature and no letters -- no collections of letters from writers who are writing now to each other talking about their work, just being funny, giving insights into their private lives, that's going to be over. And I distress (sic) nostalgia, but this is getting to me.
TRUBEKYou know, everyone, not just writers, is writing more, much more now than they were even 20 years ago. I bet, you know, your students even are texting and emailing and Facebook. These are all forms of writing. And those great writers of the past, the contemporary ones, they're writing to each other. They're writing emails, they're writing...
FLOREYNobody's saving them, though.
TRUBEKSure, they're all archived. So, you know, the -- in fact, I think we're in a just wonderful golden age of writing. There's so much more writing happening now. It used to be that the phone -- you know, you would do a lot of talking on the phone and now emailing and texting and Twitter, those are -- that's replacing that. So I actually think you can turn it around and say we're doing so much more communicating with each other through writing than we used to.
BAILEYWell, to go back to Karen's statements, that excellent teacher viewpoint, you know, I want to emphasize that the teaching and the learning of cursive has not been eliminated from the curriculum really in almost any school district. You know, the State of Missouri, 15, 16 years ago, removed their state mandate and yet you're hard pressed to find a single school district in Missouri that does not teach cursive.
BAILEYWhat you find is that we are teaching cursive across the country in order to give students those abilities that Karen mentioned, that we've all mentioned, the ability to read cursive from archival or historical documents. It's easier to read cursive than it is to write it well sometimes. But to be able to let students experience that joy, that something that we continue to hear from our teachers is that students are excited when they have that opportunity to learn cursive. And, of course, in doing that they're able to sign their name.
BAILEYThen what happens though sometime in that 4th, 5th, 6th grade and higher is that you allow the students to make a decision of what style of writing they're more comfortable with for doing their handwritten work. And of course, we do see an emphasis in more and more work being done on the computers, but not at the exclusion of handwritten work.
PAGEYou know, at the risk of being, you know, the old fogey on this panel, I wonder also about -- it's certainly true that people are doing a lot of writing and that they send each other digitally, and that is very retrievable. But the producer, Susan Nabors, who prepared this show yesterday brought in a journal that her grandmother had kept that was written in, really, quite perfect cursive handwriting. And what a connection you felt to her grandmother whose now passed away because you saw that she had put pen to paper. And I wonder if she had typed something that you -- had been saved digitally if it would've -- you know, just kinda felt like such a connection to someone who was gone.
FLOREYI think that's the same way with letters versus email. You know, yes, they're still going to exist if anybody's going to go in and find them in the archives. But it's just different and that's all I can say.
TRUBEKBut the handwriting -- I actually saw Susan's grandmother's notebook as well -- is very -- you said perfect. It's regular. It's formulaic. She was taught cursive to look like a typewriter, a font. And so it is not individual or personal. You do have that sense of the hand touching the paper, absolutely. But you don't get a sense of her personality like you would if she had written it, you know -- if what we had of her was an email she sent to her granddaughter where you get that sense of her mind.
FLOREYI actually don't think that that's true. I mean, all of us who learned cursive in school, which, you know, when I was a kid we really learned cursive, but we all learned it together. We were all trying to copy those same perfect letters, but everybody's handwriting was different. And, you know, if you talk to a graphologist -- and I interviewed a lot of them for my book -- and whether you agree with graphology or not, they will certainly be able to tell you that everybody has very different handwriting and that it does in some sense express who you are.
PAGESo what is graphology?
PAGESo you say this person's bold, this person's timid based on what their handwriting is like.
FLOREYI don't necessarily think you can -- that handwriting analysis is valid in every way, but I think that there are certain general things like that that you can see in handwriting.
PAGETracey, you wanted to get in on this...
BAILEYYeah, I think...
BAILEY...part of this discussion about the beauty and the artistry, you know, of that kind of handwriting -- my grandmother the same thing, was beautiful handwriting -- we don't see that much today for a number of reasons, some of which we've touched on, some are just societal trends obviously. But what we hear from our teachers is what is absolutely essential is that students improve their handwriting.
BAILEYWe continue to hear that it hurts students, whether it's print or whether it's cursive, that when there is illegible, poorly constructed writing that it hurts them academically down the road and really in terms -- and in other things. Not just how they're viewed, how they're perceived filling out a job application, submitting an essay, but also things that are a little less tangible. The confidence that a student has, who might have poor handwriting, the limiting that they will choose to write less and less. They'll struggle more with the process of writing rather than the composing and the creativity that should be going on.
BAILEYAnd so, you know, I've heard more in the last few weeks from our members who have said, we absolutely must do a better job of teaching students to write legibly and giving them the choice then of which script or style they choose to go in. I also think that there's an argument there too that we've heard from teachers about that's one reason that we do see school boards and state boards of ed. saying, let's give students the opportunity to -- in addition to, not instead of, to do some of that writing and composing on the computer where they can write freely and quickly and manipulate their ideas. So neither idea needs to be done at the exclusion of the other.
PAGEAnd, you know, I know one of my kids had terrible handwriting, had great difficulty mastering handwriting. In fact, he never has actually mastered handwriting. And so it was so important for him to be able to keyboard really from elementary school on, or otherwise he never would've been able to write any essay. He would've been flummoxed by just the process of doing it by hand.
TRUBEKYeah, and I would argue that a lot of the people, you know, as Kitty mentioned, who are sort of real activists and coming out of the fore have very good handwriting. And those of us who never got praised for our handwriting, who really struggled, it's very hard and it's a fine motor skill don't feel that same nostalgia.
PAGEYeah, let's go to Sherry. She's calling us from Jonesboro, Ark. Sherry, hi, you're on the air.
SHERRYHi. I work in a retail environment where I both hire teenagers and have my main customer base being teenagers. And it never ceases to surprise me on how many of them cannot even sign their name, whether it's a credit card receipt or an application. And the names don't even have to be, you know, beautiful. They just don't even know how to write in cursive for their names. So they print their name. And when I'm reviewing an application,, I take that into consideration.
PAGESo you think you're less likely to hire someone who just really can't -- hasn't mastered handwriting at all.
TRUBEKAnd I would use that exact example as a reason why we -- she should be having all of her hiring with typing because she's discriminating against job applicants based on a fine motor skill.
PAGEWell, Sherry, what do you think about that?
SHERRYWell, fine motor skills are important and -- but, you know, just simply typing you can't look for some situations like -- if they're taking the time to actually, well, you know, print out the application, that's fine. But when it comes to the signature spot, I want that. I want to know that you understand the basics of writing, of understanding -- you know, maybe 'cause I'm an old fogey, but, you know, once again, I'm reviewing these applications. And as children look at me with -- like a deer in the headlights and go, what do I do here? And I said, well, you just sign your name in cursive. And if they don't understand, that's actually 'cause they don't have a large awareness of our society.
PAGEYeah, Sherry, interesting point. Thanks so much for calling us. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to another caller. We'll go to Winter Park, Fla. and talk to Alexis. Alexis, hi, you're on the Diane Rehm Show.
ALEXISHey there, how you doing?
ALEXISGood. I just wanted to comment on the people on your show that have talked about using a computer to write. All have a background in learning how to write with pen and paper and organize their thoughts that way. And I think that if you jump -- if you throw a kid right into using a computer, you lose that kind of conservation of thought or purposefulness of what they're about to write. And they kind of don't have that organizational capacity. The computer is a tool and you have to understand why you're using the tool before you can know how to use a tool correctly.
PAGEAlexis, interesting point. Kitty, what do you think?
FLOREYYes. Well, that's what I was saying before. I do think that it's important and I have to just jump in here with what I think is -- I guess it sounds like a radical idea, but to me, it seems to be the solution for the whole cursive versus keyboarding problem. I certainly think everybody should know how to type -- do touch typing and I'm so glad I learned it in high school too. So that's a given.
FLOREYBut when it comes to learning handwriting, I don't think cursive should be taught and I don't think printing should be taught. I think that everybody should learn an italic script, which is a sort of combination of printing and cursive. It can be connected up when you want to or not connected when you don't want to. It's individual for everybody. It's fast. It's legible. And I think it should be taught from kindergarten or 1st grade. And there are some school districts who teach italic script and there are certainly programs for learning it.
FLOREYAnd I just think it's something that people would be able to continue to use all their lives without having it deteriorate the way, you know, palmer method with all those little loops and scoops can deteriorate. It's simple, it's legible, it's pleasing and so that's just my little rant on the subject of...
PAGEAnd I know...
FLOREY...how it should be taught.
PAGE...in your book, "Script Scribble" (sic) you show that form of writing. Tracey, what do you think?
BAILEYWell, you know, as the caller mentioned, I think it's a process of we teach students to create and to compose and it's a process. And that's why we see most students being taught how to form, you know, print letters, block letters and then being given an option of cursive and then being told, now let's start putting some of this on the computer. That's the normal process we see in elementary.
TRUBEKI would point out that a pen is a tool as well, right. And that what we're trying to get to is to close the gap between the ideas in our head and a communication to someone else. And whatever we can use to close that gap is the tool that's best for us.
PAGEWell, did typewriters -- when typewriters became common, did they prop the same kind of debate, Kitty?
FLOREYYes, I think they did. It's as, I guess, Anne pointed out, people are always resistant to change. And typewriters of course were originally used mostly in business offices, where oddly cursive was used. Cursive is the running hand. It was devised actually in the 16th Century for people to use in offices because it was so much quicker than anything else. So, yeah, it's --
TRUBEKAnd at first, the cursive for business purposes was seen as more formal and impersonal.
PAGEAll right. We're going to take another very short break. When we come back, we'll read from some of the very interesting emails we've gotten and we'll go back to the phones. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're joined from New Haven, Conn. by Kitty Burns Florey. She's the author of "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting." And with me here in the studio, Tracey Bailey, director of Education Policy for the Association of American Educators and Anne Trubek, she's associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
PAGEWell, here are two related emails I think are very interesting. One of them writes, "I read recently of a school in Ireland which, dismayed by the quality of student writing, gave students quill pens and taught them the artistry of writing. What they found was the quality of the writing was greatly improved as well as the legibility. We have more writing now than ever before, but much less of it is worthwhile. We need to give students a personal investment in the writing process and that's what cursive can provide."
PAGEAnd the second email that is somewhat related comes from Sarah, who writes us from Houston, Texas. She says, "My children are fortunate to attend a Montessori school where cursive handwriting is taught at the preschool level. It encourages them to express themselves. Her handwriting practice has directly contributed to her ability to concentrate, take care with her work and has fueled her intellectual and creative interests." So what do you all think of that?
BAILEYWell, I mentioned in the beginning of the program that there are two schools of thought among many teachers. And, you know, there is a camp that feels very strongly that that -- that whole process that is -- one of your writers called it artistry -- that whole process of composing and developing, it can be helped with cursive. I think that the majority of educators have that absolute emphasis, though, on legible handwriting, whether it's cursive or whether it's another style, that's essential.
BAILEYWhat you really want is to give students the ability to get their thoughts out, whether it's on paper or on the computer. You know, Dr. Steve Graham is a handwriting expert from Vanderbilt University and he has a quote that I think is important. He says, "If young students spend less time thinking about their handwriting and more time writing, they will have longer compositions, better grammar and better planning." And that's what we want to see.
BAILEYHe says -- he goes on. He says, "It is important for students to focus more on their ideas and the composition of their writing instead of how they simply form letters." And I think that's what we want as educators. Get them to write legibly, but get them to think, get them to process, get them to create, compose and review what they've written and then go back and edit.
PAGEAll right. Let's talk to Barry. He's calling us from Cleveland, Ohio. Barry, hi, you're on the air.
BARRYYeah, hi. I'm -- I'm a woman, not a man, but that's okay. I really -- I think that last comment is really important. As an occupational therapist, I work with children with hand function issues all the time. And over the years, I've seen more and more children referred for handwriting issues to OT's that really were never meant to deal with that issue in second and third grade because it wasn't taught adequately enough for them to be able to write and think at the same time.
BARRYSo I think what isn't being handled here is the issue of the fine motor piece having to be automatic before you can think. So it's true that if you have to think about forming letters, you can't think about ideas. So whether it's cursive or printing or keyboarding, if that skill has been taught badly or the child hasn't reached automaticity in their ability to do it, they cannot think and write at the same time or think and type at the same time.
PAGEWell, is that a function of age or of something else? What determines whether a child's ready to have that kind of integrated process?
BARRYWhat determines? I'm not sure what you mean by that. I think that when you teach a motor skill, it needs to get to a particular area in the brain and in their thought process where you not having to think about it, like driving home and wondering how you got there. So when you're an initial driver, all of your thinking has to go to the motor piece of it. So you have to have enough practice at it so that you can --you can write with your eyes closed and you're not thinking about the letters.
BARRYYou could write the whole cursive alphabet in 19 seconds. You haven't thought about any of it. When you have reached a point of automaticity with a motor skill, then you can do the thinking. So some kindergartens are actually where the teachers writes for the child while the child's thinking so they don't learn to write badly and then have to fix it. That's something I see happening over and over again. The experiential learning is not the good style for teaching a motor skill.
TRUBEKYeah, I absolutely agree. It's that idea of automaticity and keyboarding gets most kids there quicker. And that's why, you know, I'm arguing that, you know, for many kids -- and this goes back to the email about the -- the thing in Ireland. Typing is now second nature. I mean, really it seems very second nature to somebody. And starting very young, fourth, fifth grade, with the texting that they're doing and Facebooking and emailing, it is automatic for them.
TRUBEKAnd so there's such a big disjuncture now between how comfortable they are keyboarding and the fine motor skills of the handwriting and cursive that it's just getting exacerbated. And I wanted just celebrate the automaticity that kids have with typing and how much more writing they're doing and how invested in writing they're doing. It's not the formal school writing assignment, but they are writing all the time and it's -- they're expressing themselves through writing.
BAILEYWell, and to agree with the caller on this essential point, we've heard this, actually, from some other physical and occupational therapists, but -- but it's absolutely true our teachers tell us over and over again that when we're not taking the time or given the time to teach handwriting well, you run into, what I've described earlier, as a confidence problem.
BAILEYStudents, they know they don't write well. They're criticized for it. You could call it a self esteem issue, but it's -- it's, I think, what Barry phrased a few minutes ago that it's when something isn't taught well and you don't get to the point where it becomes automatic, then students hit a stumbling block. And they continue to hit that stumbling block as they're trying to compose and write and it gets in the way of good learning.
PAGEWell, here's an email from James who writes, "I see many young people, for example, cashiers in stores, who do not even know how to hold a pen or pencil." I wonder, Tracey, if that's about what you were speaking of. They weren't ever taught correctly how to hold a pen or a pencil.
BAILEYThat's exactly it. In fact, literally, on the drive into the studio this morning, I was speaking with one of our teachers from Richmond, Virginia, and she was adamant on this point. Now, she's taught second, third and fourth grade. She was adamant saying that when students come to her in the second and third grade and they have not even been taught in kindergarten to hold a pencil.
BAILEYTheir grip is all wrong. They're scribbling and scrawling that by the time they're in third grade, it's difficult to undo some of those bad habits. So emotionally, the child has suffered and, in terms of this muscle memory that we're talking about, it's difficult to unlearn something like that. And it gets in the way for years.
PAGELet's talk to Nancy calling us from Rochester, N.Y., hi, Nancy.
PAGEYes, hi, go ahead.
NANCYHi, my question is I wonder what private schools are doing in regard to this teaching of cursive or not. And, also, I just view this as dumbing down of American students. I mean, I hardly can imagine China not teaching their children how to write their characters at any time at all. But private schools, I just wonder about that where the, you know, where the children of the elite go.
PAGEAll right, Nancy. Thanks for your call. Tracey, do you know what's happening with private schools?
BAILEYYeah, I deal mostly with public school teachers, but I can say that with private schools, there is far more variability. You know, obviously, yeah, as I said that, you know, in our public school system, school boards are responsive to community input. At least one would hope so. And state boards of ed, the same way. Private schools are responsive to a paying portion of parents and you can bet that if those parents in that elite private school are saying this is what we want, it'll happen. It'll just happen.
BAILEYNow, again, I don't think that there's a huge difference. There are between public schools and private schools on this issue -- there's one other issue and that is that public schools are held accountable to standardized testing, adequately yearly progress, state and federal requirements in a way that -- that many private schools aren't. And so they have a little more latitude in their curriculum and in their time.
PAGEYeah, interesting. Let's go to Sarah calling us from Great Falls, Va., Sarah, you're on the air.
SARAHHi, my question is maybe a little bit related to the subject. What about numbers? Instead of teaching the timetables to the kids and they spend a whole -- a lot of time to memorize these things, now I see in school that they're using calculators. What do you feel about that?
PAGEAll right. Sarah, thanks very much for your call.
BAILEYI'll jump in first. You know, I'm a former AP physics, AP biology and chemistry teacher. And, you know, it is essential that we teach calculations where a student can set up the problem, they can set that physics problem up, they can write it out, they can manipulate it. If you want to go back to things like long division, you need to be able to know what you're working with before you move on then and use a rapid tool.
BAILEYAnd I think we still do that. We still teach multiplication tables. We still teach the basics of mathematics and of scientific equations. And then later when a student has learned that enough to be able then to apply it then we move into an area where we say, OK, now you can use the shortcut, but not until.
PAGEKitty, what do you think about that?
FLOREYI wondered if we could just, for a minute, go back to the issue of elitism. When we talk about elitism, in terms of, maybe, private schools keeping cursive and keeping decent handwriting alive and public schools not doing that, I know this irrelevant to what we're talking about now, but I think it's important to remember that everybody does not have a computer. Everybody doesn't have access to a keyboard.
FLOREYComputer ownership is not universal by any means and there are a lot of kids who are going to have to, for one reason or another, use handwriting all through their lives because they don't have anything else to write on. And I think that's something that's maybe being overlooked when we talk about how we're just going to become a nation of keyboarders.
PAGEDo you see a digital divide already happening in schools, Kitty?
FLOREYI don't know much about schools, but I know just from what I read and from the research I did when I was writing "Script and Scribble" and just talking to people that, you know, all school districts aren't completely equipped with computers and much less the kids that, you know, they don't have them at home necessarily. And I'm sure that that's changing, but, you know, there's a lot of poverty and there's a lot of kids who don't have access to the things that other kids have access to.
FLOREYAnd they're kind of stuck if they're -- you know, they're -- these kinds of kids that we're talking about now who are graduating from high school without being able to write at all.
TRUBEKYeah, I respectfully disagree. I think that the digital divide is something that hasn't happened to the extent that we expected it might. And I think that precisely because of the issues of class and socioeconomic status, keyboarding isn't important. Let's remember that caller who wasn't hiring the kids who didn't have good handwriting. I think that there are these associations that we make.
TRUBEKAlmost -- I mean, cell phones are just about ubiquitous and that T-9 texting that so many kids are very familiar with, with libraries, with other forms of keyboards other than -- than a home computer, the digital divide is something that hasn't really happened that either -- almost all public schools assume that kids can hand in a typewritten paper by high school, even a -- you know, the poorest public high schools and that this is an essential basic skill that we need to make sure Americans have, which is the ability to keyboard fast because it's going to be very important for their future.
BAILEYWell, I can -- I can just say from the public school perspective, I think that public schools have done a great job of avoiding what many of us were concerned about, that digital divide. Now, again, in some school districts, it still happens, but the vast majority of high schools across the country are not only allowing, but, in many cases, requiring students to turn in their assignments electronically.
BAILEYNow, again, we've got computers in the schools. We've got them in the library, those kinds of places, but that's just the way that the world works today.
PAGEHere's an email from Ann, who writes us from Durham, N.C. She writes, "As a college English instructor, I have to require in-class handwritten essays because many students are not thinking for themselves while keyboarding because they are multi-tasking on the internet while composing. And they lift a sentence or a paragraph and then call it their own work. I see more and more plagiarism every year."
PAGENow, Anne, you also teach college. Do you have these concerns, too, really, one, that people are multi-tasking when they're keyboarding and also that it makes it easier to plagiarize?
TRUBEKYeah, I think that we multi-task even when we sit with our pen and paper as we daydream. So I don't buy into the multi-tasking internet downfall way of thinking. I do think we need to rethink our definitions of plagiarism and attribution. That's very important. I mean, these things are changing, as well. And those are issues to deal with, but not so much to go backwards and say, okay, put away your keyboards and let's hand-write something.
TRUBEKThose college students probably have no real, you know, association with -- and it makes it, you know, looses the automaticity. We need to just rethink and better teach plagiarism, attribution, copy write, those issues.
PAGEYou said that you think our theories about plagiarism should -- should change? What do you mean?
TRUBEKYeah, we need to rethink that idea of, you know, original authorship and -- and, you know, we do so much copy and pasting and, you know, we need to better teach students, you know, the criteria of research and citation, but we also have to rethink what we mean by, sort of, unintentional plagiarism, you know, understanding that often these students are not intentionally trying to cheat, but they have a different understanding of citation and attribution than, you know, than we do -- us, you know, over 30.
PAGEBut is the point to teach them to attribute things that they copy or to change our ideas of what amounts to plagiarism?
TRUBEKBoth. I mean, I think we are in a moment right now where we need to do both, but I think that our ideas of what constitutes plagiarism and original authorship will slowly shift, as well.
PAGEKitty, what do you think about that?
FLOREYWell, I guess it doesn't sound that good to me. I think that original thinking is really important when you're in high school and college and, in fact, all your life. And to change the -- the concept of plagiarism means that we have to condone taking other people's words and passing them off as our own. That doesn't seem right.
PAGEYou know, I guess it concerns me, too. I think plagiarism comes easier now, but, therefore, we need to be kind of stricter with insisting that things get attributed. What do you think, Tracey?
BAILEYWell, I have a large family of my own. I have two of my own children in college. I have three in high school and some others. I think -- what I found interesting are the software programs that high schools and colleges use where you can instantly identify plagiarism. Kids need to know you will not get by with it, not a paragraph.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. Tacoma Park, Md., Annie's calling us and I think she's a teacher at one of the private schools that we were talking about before. Hi, Annie.
ANNIEHi, how are you?
ANNIEGood, yes, I teach kindergarten in a private school in Washington, D.C. and we've been having this conversation at our own school among the faculty about print and cursive writing. And we still do teach it. We teach print in kindergarten and first grade and second grade and then move into learning cursive in the upper grades -- the K-8 school.
ANNIEAnd one of the considerations -- I haven't heard all of this conversation and I don't know if it's come up -- is hand size and that being relevant at five or six when they're learning to write, that their hands are small and it's hard for them to be able to manipulate a keyboard at that time.
PAGEAll right. Well, Annie, thanks very much for your call. Any comments, Tracey?
BAILEYWell, I know in the public schools, they typically don't teach keyboarding until some of the other more basic skills have been established. And so I don't know whether that's been an issue. I think the way that most public schools have done this, again, beginning with print, K, 1 and 2, cursive, you know, second and third and maybe fourth grade.
BAILEYI think it falls into and agrees with what Annie just said is that we -- we're teaching things at appropriate levels.
PAGEYou know, we've had some impassioned emails from the defenders of teaching cursive. Fred from Ann Arbor, Mich. says, "What do you do when the lights go out and you're dependent on keyboards?" And Lee has posted a comment on our website saying, "Not learning to write because there are electronic media, isn't that like saying because you have a car you don't need to learn how to walk?"
PAGEWell, we're going to have to leave it there. I want to thank our panel for joining us this hour. Kitty Burns Florey, Tracey Bailey and Ann Trubek. Thanks so much for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation this week. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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