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Let’s Talk About Cursive

Q: If a child comes to my classroom only knowing print, do you recommend switching to cursive entirely? 

A: Maybe? Probably?

As always, it’s going to depend on the child. How old is he? A young six-year-old or a 10-year-old? Is his writing gigantic, poorly formed, and slow? Or is it neat, legible, and fast?

In the case of nearly illegible print writing from a young child, I don’t consider that a mastery of print letters and I have little hesitation moving him to cursive instead.

If it is an older student who writes just fine, then I don’t mind him continuing with print. I still ensure that letterforms are correct and that the writing is legible.

Why Bother with Cursive at All?

Cursive is archaic! Print is more practical! Throw out handwriting and just teach typing!

There is research on the benefits of cursive over print (researchers say there are improved outcomes for writers of cursive over print) but I don’t find the evidence particularly compelling. I don’t choose cursive because the research (might) indicate it’s better.

My reasons are practical.

Cursive is More Comfortable

I have a chronic-use injury in my hands and wrists that makes handwriting uncomfortable. This doesn’t stop me in the slightest. I write a lot, at least a page a day, but often more if I’m trying to understand something difficult, because all of my thinking is done best through handwriting.

I write exclusively in cursive because I find that it is more comfortable.

When I write in print, my hands hurt a lot more and I need to take more breaks. The motions of print involves a lot more stopping and starting, a lot more picking up and putting down of the pen, a lot more direction changes than cursive. These motions are all tiny and imperceptible to most people with well developed hands, but I feel it. And if I feel it, I must believe that the children feel it too.

Cursive is More Legible

I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out.

What I see for students who write in print is a lot of difficulty getting the forms right, especially as they get faster. Because of all the movement between strokes, you actually must be very precise with a pencil to make well formed letters. The letters are not designed for speed, they’re designed for printing machines (more on this) so the writing gets progressively sloppier and it’s really hard to remediate that.

In cursive, the letters all start and stop in about the same place and the letters flow into one another smoothly. The word cursive comes to us from Latin curro which means “in a hurry.” Cursive is designed for speed. As you get faster, the letters don’t deteriorate in the same way.

Furthermore, with cursive the spaces between words are obvious- the space between words is where you pick up the pencil!

I Find the Case for Print Dubious

The dominant argument I hear for the use of print goes something like this: Books are printed in print so, we should teach children to write in print. This will help them learn to read printed books.

There are a couple of angles to approach this from. First, the method of reading instruction I promote is a writing first approach. Whether it’s with the Moveable Alphabet or with a pencil, the children practice phonetically spelling words before they attempt decoding printed text. In other words, all of the initial exposure and practice is with non-printed text.

Next, books are printed, but I don’t think we are expecting children to be human printers. Machines do not print in cursive because until recently, with computer publishing and fancy digital fonts, typesetting was unable to achieve connected cursive writing. There was no option for books to be printed in cursive without bookplates. Print was designed for printing machines, not child hands.

Even my student who had the most extreme case of reading difficulty I’ve ever seen, the difference between print and cursive letters didn’t seem to be a problem. She had memory issues (across the curriculum not just in reading) but I never observed a difference between her reading my handwriting, her handwriting, Moveable Alphabet letters, or printed words. Her major difficulty was in stretching her memory to be able to manipulate more than two sounds at a time.

This young lady took over a year to learn to read. She entered my class at 7 and wrote slowly in gigantic, barely legible capital letters. I decided to switch her entirely to cursive, with practice she developed a quick and charming cursive script.

So… When Do You Teach Print?

I teach all of my student how to write in cursive. I do not teach print writing unless it is remedial handwriting for an older student.

As to reading print, I teach it concurrently with writing. In my classroom experience, recognizing print letters compared to their cursive forms has never been a major production. I do not have any supplemental materials in my class for teaching print. When a student bumps into a letter they don’t recognize in a strange new font, I simply point to the unrecognized letter and say “This is the print/fancy/capital version of /a/.”

But keep in mind, I’m an elementary teacher. In the primary classroom, I believe there is a short lesson where you connect the Sandpaper Letters to the Moveable Alphabet through matching.

If I ever felt I needed a material for this, I would probably print a bunch of small cards with letters written in a variety of fonts and have the child match them up to the Sandpaper Letter.

Resources

I retaught myself handwriting from this book:

I teach italic print from this book:

These are the fonts I use to make materials:

  • EDU SA Beginner – Print Font – Free through GoogleFonts
    • These are the correct letterforms for writing in print. I used to use Century Gothic (like most people) in my materials, but those are “ball and stick” letter forms. My students would try to copy the font and it was teaching bad handwriting habits. As of writing this blog post, I’m still working through updating the fonts in all of my old materials to EDU SA.
  • SA Cursive – Cursive Font – Paid
    • I especially like the “b” and the capital letters. I prefer “loop less” ascenders because they are easier to read, more modern, and show the connection between print and cursive very clearly. This is fast and legible cursive for modern writers. Here is the official South Australian syllabus for teaching these letters.

Teaching Cursive in the Montessori Classroom
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