Thursday, January 20, 2011

Johnny Can't Write

When I complain that my students can't write, what I usually mean is that they can't form coherent arguments, or that their writing style is pedestrian, or even that the sentences are ungrammatical. But today I have something more shocking to report.

I've had a student ask if I could develop an alternative test-taking arrangement for him, not because he has a formal academic accommodation (he doesn't), but because he never learned handwriting skills. He can't write in cursive. And after seeing a sample of some notes he took, I believe that he can't print either. Some letters were small case and some were capitals, with no rhyme or reason. I would not be able to read an essay test written in this handwriting.

The student's explanation was that he went to a Montessori school through 6th grade, and that this school just didn't teach handwriting. He said he had a really hard time in 7th grade, and tried to learn to (hand)write, but by then most of the students' work was in typed form anyway. When I started looking around for more information, I found that the problem is not isolated and doesn't seem to be just in Montessori schools. It's widespread. From a Cincinnati newspaper:

Cursive writing is "not addressed as a skill anywhere in Kentucky's core content, and there are so many other things that are," said Terry Price, director of elementary education for Bullitt County Public Schools. "Students need to be able to sign their name and be able to read it, but I think we'll get to a point in the future where it's not necessary at all."

For now, however, most educators are still teaching cursive writing, said Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who conducted a study on the subject in 2008. He and other researchers surveyed about 170 first-, second- and third-grade teachers across the nation and found that 90 percent taught handwriting.

The time spent on those lessons averaged about 60 minutes a week, but some spend as little as 10 minutes a week on it, and the majority of teachers said they didn't have any real training in how to teach penmanship, Graham said.

Others call cursive writing skills "quaint" and tell stories of 7th graders unable even to read cursive handwriting! I'm shocked to learn that 10% of primary school teachers are not teaching handwriting, and that some spend only 10 minutes a week on it.

I made some calls around campus to see about whether this student could write his exam with a keyboard and one of the people I talked to proctors SATs at our testing center. SATs are now entirely electronic, except there is a one-sentence statement that students must copy, swearing to their identity and honesty. She says that handwritten statement is the hardest part of the exam for some students, that it can take them up to 20 minutes to copy, and that they absolutely cannot write it in cursive.

Do (or should) teachers deduct points for bad handwriting? I tell my students that if I can't read their ideas, I can't give credit for them.


Hnah said...

Sorry to muscle on in here.

I guess it's down to the value of cursive - my instinctive response to your final question was "YES, ABSOLUTELY" but then I have no idea why.

We've been taught, at all my schools, how to do handwriting. But no-one's ever really said 'why'. We just took it as a given, as-is.

Why is cursive important? What are your thoughts?

Evelyn Brister said...

As someone who sometimes prints and sometimes writes in cursive, I can say that cursive is a more comfortable, faster way to write.

I have pretty good handwriting--not the most beautiful or perfect, but definitely above the bare standard of legibility. And I also tend to write extensive comments, especially early in the term and when student writing sparks interesting ideas.

But I just had a student say that he hadn't read the extensive, supportive comments I put on his paper because he can't read cursive. Cannot read it! A college student! So how widespread is this exactly?

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke said...

I haven't run up against this, but I teach at a university where we have to document everything for assessment purposes so I make all of my comments using MS Word's comments/track changes feature.

The vast majority of my students are deaf and hard of hearing, so we solve the issue of notetaking by preparing powerpoints as a time saver, otherwise the lag time between writing and waiting for eye contact can really add up. Some students open the powerpoint on their computers and touch type notes during class. Others surf the internet (sigh) but it is pretty easy to figure out who is doing what.