Cursive, or "joined-up", handwriting seems to have taken a real hit in recent years. With the increased use of ICT in schools and more focus on content than on the intricacies of the English language, I am seeing this notionally "old-fashioned" way of writing less and less in classrooms.
But what if children were taught the value of perfect handwriting and presentation? What if handwriting was valued as much as touch-typing speed? Would we see increased attainment? I believe that we might.
If children are taught to "join up" early on and encouraged to stick with it, then neat handwriting and clear presentation will often become the norm.
But there may be benefits to cursive writing besides mere legibility. In his book, The Learning Skills Cycle: a way to rethink education reform (2017), William Klemm, a senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, claims that learning cursive is an “important tool for cognitive development”, helping to build fine motor skills and thinking skills.
“Cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation,” says Klemm.
Why teach joined-up writing?
Given this, why wouldn’t a teacher want to teach their pupils to join up? Well, I haven’t always been in support of cursive myself. When I first entered learning support, I thought that the added flair of cursive writing would be too complicated for those who struggled with the basic formation of letters.
However, the truth is that printed letters are often formed very similarly and, as such, cause great confusion for some learners. Conversely, cursive letters are all formed with their own unique signature flicks and curves: helpful for those with learning needs, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, who can reap great benefit from the more fluid movement of joined-up writing. I now teach cursive as standard and find pupils’ willingness to keep work neat and ensure correct spelling has greatly increased as a result.
What are the best ways to teach cursive, then? I believe that the secret to success is to start young. If pupils begin learning cursive handwriting at age 7, by 9 they will – in my experience – be equipped with a skill for life.
'All pupils are unique'
First impressions matter and a person writing with beautiful penmanship will make a better first impression than one who writes in an illegible scrawl. And, as I often say to my exam candidates: if the marker can’t read it, they can’t mark it. Having seen first-hand the pride in perfect presentation that cursive encourages, I feel sure that introducing all students to this style of writing would be greatly beneficial.
Of course, all pupils are unique and teachers will know best whether or not cursive writing is worth persevering with for the individual. Cursive can increase speed of writing and legibility; it can improve spelling and fine motor skills; it can avoid the irregular spacing often seen in the first few years of primary school; it can teach self-discipline and determination and increase self-confidence – but this is not always the case. Sometimes the frustrations of trying to master the writing form can ultimately be too much for a child.
That said, giving pupils the chance to experiment with a style that may well suit them best is surely worthwhile. The one thing that we can be 100 per cent sure of is that giving it a go will cause no harm at all. One can absolutely still be a neat writer whilst sticking entirely to print. But once cursive is embedded, just like riding a bike, one will never forget how to do it.
Aisling McGuire is head of learning support at Belhaven School in Dunbar. She tweets @aisling1105