Sunday, 29 January 2017

The curse of cursive

Having only just said that I was going to write more little observations about LittleBear, I now find myself obliged to launch into a rant about something else instead. I'm havering about writing, having signed a "contract" promising not to write about the school on social media, but I am telling myself that this isn't about the school (which I still think is lovely, and staffed by lovely people, doing an excellent job). This is about the dogma passed down to the school from on high that they are following, because it's their job to do so.

I shall declare, first of all, my own "qualifications" for my comments.

Firstly, I went to a very old-fashioned school. The kind of school where you weren't allowed to leave the premises unless your coat was done up properly. The kind of school where we had an actual lesson dedicated to teaching us to eat a banana "politely". The kind of school that had only just relaxed its regulations on allowing the young ladies to be seen walking along one side of the street because the shops there were "inappropriate". The kind of school where we had handwriting lessons. Every week. In secondary school. The kind of school where, at the end of term, we had a handwriting exam. A handwriting exam where, I feel obliged to brag, I am the only person in the school's history to achieve 100%*.

Secondly, and perhaps more relevantly, I have practiced calligraphy for more than quarter of a century and have a deep and abiding interest in, and love of, the formation of letters, their design, aesthetic and creation.

So. Cursive writing for 5 year olds. Kind of a good idea, and yet...

There is a world of difference between the form of a letter, and the means used to join that letter to another. A letter has a shape, a structure that allows one to see and know what it is. Joining it to other letters is a means to make it faster to write, not an inherent change in the form of the letters. Additional movements of the pen are made that allow one letter to lead into the next. But those movements are not part of the letter, they are simply a means to an end. But that doesn't seem to be the current belief within the education system. The current method of teaching is not to teach the basic form of the letters, with the proper formation. The current method of teaching appears to be instructing children that those extra bits of ink that allow one letter to join another are actually part of the letters. They're not. Let me show you.

These are all the letter s:

A positive susurration of esses

There are a lot of ways of writing an "s". But they're all basically the same shape.

This is not an s:

Where did those extra lines come from?

An "s" does not have a lead-in stroke, or a lead-out stroke. They're just tools that feature when you join one letter to another. There is no particular need in joined-up writing to have additional strokes that slow the process down, no point in having a lead-in on the first letter of a word, and a lead out on the final letter. The letter itself doesn't possess those features, it's the process that does. But, LittleBear is currently being taught perverse and corrupted letter formations. Letter formations, furthermore, that lead him to join his letters together in the wrong way, by virtue of the fact they're being taught as the form of the letter, not a feature of the process of joining. Take, for example, an "r" and an "o".

Relatively inoffensive letters so far

When joined, these become:

Something's gone wrong

No. By teaching the process of joining as a fundamental part of the shape of the letter, LittleBear is learning by rote, instead of learning with understanding. This is something I've had a beef with for a while, not simply as a feature of primary education, see for example Exhibit D in an earlier rant of mine.

I shall take, as my example, the poor, unfortunate zebra.

Poor old zebra

By my reckoning, and by my calligraphic standards, there are at least 5 errors in the manner in which LittleBear is being taught to write "zebra". The poor beast only has 5 letters, so that's an embarrassment of errors.

Where did it all go wrong?

1. The initial letter should not have a lead-in. LittleBear, and his LittleFriends would know this if they were taught the underlying letter shapes, not a bastardized version.

2. There is no need for a tailed z. Seriously. Almost nobody in this country writes with a tailed z, and it's entirely possible, in fact considerably easier, to join a non-tailed z into cursive writing. (Besides which, any decent calligraphic hand that uses a tailed z would also use the curved form for the upper part and not have an aesthetic mismatch of angular upper half and looped-tail for the lower half. That thing's neither fish nor fowl. Nor zebra.)

3. A cursive "b" should join from the top of the bowl, not the bottom. Joining at the bottom risks confusion with "k" or "h".

4. Rote-learning of the lead-ins and lead-outs fails to allow understanding that there's more than one way to get from "r" to "a".

5. It's the end of the word, there's no need for a lead-out, it's not part of the letter.

Here's how it "should" be, in the gospel according to Miss V.

Readable, joined-up zebra

I'm (moderately) sure there are sound pedagogical reasons for teaching cursive straight away. I'm also equally sure that just because small children are small, and just learning, does not mean they can't understand that there's more than one way to do something. The path to learning is not being drilled in one way and one way only of achieving a task. So I'm going to be that parent that teachers hate. I'm going to be that parent that points out to LittleBear that while his teachers are correct in their methods, there are also other equally correct methods**. So I am showing LittleBear examples of different ways of writing the same thing. I'm showing him there's more than one way to skin a zebra. I'm showing him things like this too, so he knows that writing doesn't just have to be about communicating.

Sometimes it's all about the shape

I have no doubt that LittleBear and all his LittleFriends will learn to write, and that eventually it will even be legible. But I do find the dictat about how they must learn frustrating. And unhelpful. And ill-considered. And in some cases, plain wrong***.

* I know this because the handwriting exam was the beloved creation of the terrifying Miss V, who declared that she had never, and would never, award 100%, as there was no such thing as perfection in handwriting. However, in her final year before retirement, she did  the unthinkable and awarded me 100%. And then retired, thus depriving all future young ladies of the opportunity to reach this dizzy height of academic achievement. The truth of the matter is that I probably have a rather alarming proclivity for forgery, and produced a beautiful facsimile of Miss V's handwriting for the exam to achieve my extraordinary mark. We shall draw a discreet veil over the occasions on which I assisted my compatriots in producing realistic versions of their parents' signatures in homework diaries...

**  No, I'm not going down the path of Alternative Facts, just alternative means to an end.

*** The joining of the "b" is really annoying me. Clearly Miss V had a deeper impact upon me than I have cared to acknowledge thus far.


  1. He's FIVE and they're foisting this on him? That really seems unhelpful, especially for those children who are still not quite at the point where letters and writing are making sense at ALL (my very bright Godson didn't write at all effectively (single letters when forced, with tantrums) until he was nearly seven, when he suddenly discovered the joy of Making Lists Of Things In Private Notebooks - he's now getting firsts in politics at university, he was just rather developmentally normal for a male child learning to write).

    And if they learn this is the only way to write a letter, how about IT and typing? Those letters don't look like the ones with tails...

    I would be joining you in indignation and 'being that parent' if I had a child in LittleBear's class, and consider it entirely justified!

  2. I have relatively recently started writing my z's with a line through them. I found I needed that to make them legible.
    I think I do the b's like that, but the r, now that is seriously poor.
    In the school's defence, I think they start out teaching some odd stuff, but quite quickly it changes, for example, once the children have got the concept that the letters can look a bit different, they will probably move on to a more reasonable approach.