Friday, June 28, 2013

A reporting question on "death of cursive"

I know I've talked about the cursive debate too much, but this time I'm intrigued with a difference in reporting.

"Is Cursive Writing Dead?" at Yahoo News:
Writing in general, regardless of whether it's cursive, may also boost brain activity, according to a 2010 study finding that preschool students who wrote out letters rather than just viewing them showed changes in brain activity when they later viewed those letters. "Coupled with other work from our lab, we interpret this as the motor system augmenting visual processing," said study researcher Karin Harman James of Indiana University in a statement. "In the case of learning letters, printing helps children recognize letters."
So far, so good. But take a look at Morgan Polikoff's statement in the article:
Anderson points critics to a recent study by the College Board, which found that SAT test essays written in cursive received a slightly higher score than those written in printed letters.
But Polikoff and others aren't impressed. The College Board study "is not evidence of anything," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It doesn't indicate that the knowledge of cursive causes higher scores."
"As we have done with the abacus and the slide rule, it is time to retire the teaching of cursive," Polikoff told The New York Times. "The writing is on the wall."
And at WaPo, a much less inflammatory and nuanced statement. I've put the part missing from Yahoo! in bold:
Jacks and Asherson cited a study conducted by the College Board a year after implementing a handwritten portion to the SAT in which the student essay responses were coded across a variety of characteristics such as number of paragraphs, words and whether they were written in first person. The essays also were coded as print or cursive.
The study — based on 6,498 randomly sampled tests administered between March 2005 and January 2006 — revealed that 15% of the essays were written in cursive and received a slightly higher sub-score than printed essays.
"It's easier to read and easier to score," Asherson said.
Still, the study is not enough to convince Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor at USC Rossier School of Education.
The percentage of essays written in cursive "is not evidence of anything," he said. "It doesn't indicate that the knowledge of cursive causes higher scores, but it might suggest that the kind of folks who write in cursive during SATs do so because they're probably smarter." [...] 
 "The simple fact is that cursive is not included in the common core," he said, and added that though states are able to choose up to 15% of the standards, few decide to add cursive.
"I think it's important to have nice handwriting, but the importance of having to learn two kinds of handwriting seems unnecessary given the vast method of communication is on a keyboard," Polikoff said. "One reason [to teach it] might be to be able to read historical documents and old journals that are written in cursive."
 Left undiscussed:

1. Do smarter students write in cursive because cursive helps their brain activity?

2. Or do SAT raters give them credit for being smarter because they see writing in cursive as a superior skill?

3. Is there a real correlation between cursive writing and better writing (better thoughts, better sentences, etc.), or is it just an artifact of the rating process?

4. If cursive isn't part of the common core but is taught in good schools (as nicoleandmaggie indicated), how might this affect the professed objectivity of the rating process for other standardized tests, since cursive writing could equal coming from a better school?

5. Why would Yahoo! report Polikoff's view as a "stomp out cursive" message and WaPo report his longer statements, which sort of undercut the idea that cursive is useless?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Hm. I have no idea if my kids' school teaches cursive. It's a very old school place, so I'm guessing yes, but I'm going to look into it.

nicoleandmaggie said...

DC1's teacher sent a big packet of cursive to work on over summer break. He's doing a page a day. Fun times.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Does Polikoff realize how different older styles of cursive (such as one sees in "old documents") are from the 19th-century's copperplate and its modern descendants? I suppose being able to read any joined-up writing would be some help, but it's not as if a person who reads modern cursive can just sit down and read one of the older hands fluently. Clearly my quixotic attempts to spread the doctrine of Secretary Hand have not yet borne fruit. ;-)

Contingent Cassandra said...

I come from a family of highly-educated (and, by any of the usual measures, pretty smart) people, a number of whom (including me), learned cursive, but went back to printing in adolescence/adulthood. I'm not sure, but I suspect that I printed my own AP essays (the SAT didn't yet have essays) and college blue book tests. Soon after that (e.g. for generals and field exams, taken at a school with an honor code), I moved to typing pretty much everything on a computer. But I still take some notes by hand, and I do it by printing; the same is true for my rare handwritten correspondence. I sign my name in cursive; that's about it.

undine said...

Fie, I'll be interested to see whether it's being taught.

nicoleandmaggie--I was thinking about your earlier comment about your kids when I was writing this post.

Dame Eleanor--I don't think that humanities is his background, so he may not have thought about this. You could give us lessons in Secretary Hand!

Contingent Cassandra--I think that a lot of people would agree: cursive for signatures and that's about it, especially if you grew up with computers. What fascinated me about the two articles was the difference in the way that his perspectives were reported.

Anonymous said...

As a retired educator, I used to be conversant with the academic literature on writing. Cursive was taught to children because its use enhanced the expression of thought: cursive could be written faster, so thoughts were not "lost" in the process of writing; cursive produced less stress on the musculature of the fingers and hands. The latter reason was particularly important in the case of children.

The academic studies and thinking about cursive were prevalent in the 1930s. The studies and thinking were implemented in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Booklover said...

There have been studies that link handwriting and memory; hand writing notes results in more information retained vs. typing them.

undine said...

Anonymous, thank you for stopping by and for your professional perspective. I had been told that the "losing thoughts" possibility was a good reason for learning cursive, but I had never heard of the "less stress" idea.

Booklover--you're right. That's why I keep coming back to the well on this subject: the studies are clear on the benefits of handwriting notes because of the loop between brain, hand, and words.

Leslie Fish said...

"Cursive" is only one style of script writing, and far from the best. Italic, Blackletter, Secretary and other styles are faster, clearer, easier to teach and much less prone to the illegibility that Cursive has become notorious for. Learning any of them would provide all the benefits, and none of the drawbacks, that proponents of Cursive claim.

GMP said...

Cursive is not globally universal. For instance, the cursive I was taught in school, which is standard across much of continental Europe, is actually quite different than the "modern American cursive" that I see my kids being taught here in the US. I have a hard time reading when my students write cursive and I have given up on trying to write for them because they are amazed and amused at the way I write e.g. H, A, M, N, z, etc.

Globalization is a nail in the coffin of cursive...