Conversations about Handwriting

A woman writing with a fountain pen.
Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

I’ve found myself engaged in three different conversations about handwriting this week, so I thought I’d offload some of my thoughts here.

1. Cursive

This one, granted, is an ongoing debate among teachers as a whole, not just a conversation I’m having, but it has been brought back to the fore lately on the back of some new studies and articles. I won’t give the whole background here, because chances are you know it already, and if you don’t, you’ll likely want to go away and get into it much deeper than I could here.

I do not endorse the teaching of cursive. I would say I’ve held this position for quite some time longer than it has been fashionable. Granted, I don’t write in cursive, and for a good while I wished I did. But I assure you, it’s not my own lack of ability that leads me to oppose the teaching of cursive.

There is no good use for cursive in its own right, and there are no clear benefits to teaching either. There are studies to back up that latter claim, but on my own anecdotal experience, I’d even go as far as to say that it can be detrimental.

Those who endorse it do so from various stand points. One I’ve heard recently is the claim that learning to write in cursive makes learners better readers. Not only is there no reliable data to back this up (the paper this particular teacher/writer referenced was not very convincing) but it also doesn’t make any sense! Most of what we read is not written in cursive, and there’s no logical reason why familiarity with cursive would help recognise printed type.

Another claim is that it helps spelling, because cursive involves writing letters as physical parts of the words they’re contained in rather than isolated units. A very nice, if simplistic, idea, but entirely fanciful and utterly immeasurable!

The truth is, we live in an increasingly paperless world, and we almost never encounter cursive.

Is it worth teaching learners to recognise cursive for the sake of posterity? Sure. I can see the value of teaching it as a sort of archeo-linguistic skill so that we can still decipher hand-written records centuries hence . But to mandate it as the standard way of writing is just one more way of widening the chasm between the schoolhouse and “the real world”.

2. ALL CAPS

An adult learner of mine explained to me that he is not capable of writing by hand in anything but ALL CAPS. He explained that he was coached as a young boy by his father to write this way and that his father had even written a letter to his teacher insisting that she enforce this in the classroom with the justification that “it is more professional”.

I’d never encountered a case quite like this before, but I have had a few conversations over the years about the value of all caps. My grandfather, while he wrote most of the time in fairly elaborate cursive, would often print in upper case when he wrote something that needed to be communicated without error. There is, it seems, a subdued assumption amongst many that upper-case text carries a certain professionalism or clarity. It would appear that this comes from one primary source: the fact that official documentation often requires that we fill in forms with all caps. Indeed, this week’s learner referred to the same as a part of his father’s rationale.

The fairly reasonable assumption that many take from this requirement is that ALL CAPS are required on forms and the like because they are easier to read. Many people I have asked, often teachers, would endorse that claim.

But those same people, when presented with two copies of the same text, one in all caps, one in standard script,  invariably find the standard script easier to read. So, why is all caps a requirement on official forms if it’s not easier to read, and why isn’t it easier to read?

ALL CAPS are not easier to read, but they are easier to distinguish from one another. There is an important difference. If it is imperative that a word be transcribed accurately, then recording it in ALL CAPS is by far the safer option. This is because there is much less variabilty in upper case letters. A capital ‘A’ pretty much looks the same whoever writes is, whereas a lower-case ‘a’ can take several forms. And that’s before we even consider cursive. Moreover, a lower-case ‘a’ can look quite like a lower-case ‘o’ and an ‘i’ can very easily resemble a ‘j’. And who would blame you for mistaking a rushed ‘u’ for a ‘v’?

But while upper-case letters are more easily discernible, it is not easier to read a text composed with them exclusively. I’m not actually sure why this is, but I suspect quite strongly that at least part of the reason is familiarity. We are conditioned by the texts we encounter in the world, and the vast majority of text is written in standard script (lower case letters with upper case letters marking sentences, proper nouns, etc.). This means that we are more familiar with this and as such are better trained to decode it. Perhaps  ALL CAPS would be easier to read if it were the standard. And at the end of the day, standards aside, there is really nothing more important than legibility. 

3. Assessing Hand-writing

This comes as a follow-up to the previous conversation. The learner in question was concerned that he would be marked down on his writing assessment for writing in ALL CAPS, but also that he would not be able to write in lower case without significant effort such that it would be detrimental to his output. The latter seems to me quite a reasonable concern. Upper case and lower case letters are very different from one another, and if a person has spent their entire life (and I do mean that with no exaggeration) exclusively writing in ALL CAPS, then trying to write in lower case would essentially mean using a whole new alphabet. He may as well use Arabic or Hebrew script!

Unfortunately, his other concern, regarding the loss of marks in the assessment, was also not entirely unfounded. There is often a penalty in writing assessments for non-standard use of capital letters. It comes under the banner of punctuation. Learners would be marked down for not starting a sentence with a capital or marking proper nouns, etc. and it would be impossible to determine this if the whole text were in ALL CAPS, so an automatic marking-down would seem obvious. 

I’ve also had learners in the past whose handwriting was simply peppered with capital letters, seemingly at random, in the middles of words, even. These learners would also risk the same penalty in their assessments.

Some of these learners would request the use of a laptop for their assessments because they were concerned about this, and once upon a time I considered that an unfair advantage. It allowed them to hide their flaws. It was disingenuous, I thought.

I no longer think that, though. It was my initial reaction to the scenario, but under closer inspection, it was entirely inconsistent with the points I’ve made above. A) we live in a world where typing is the standard, and B) all that really matters is getting the message across to the reader. What sense does it make to force a learner to write by hand and them penalise them for it, when they’re unlikely to spend much time writing by hand outside of the exam hall anyway? 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: