Yes, cursive may be dying

Finland continues to astound the 21st century world. The country tops the World Happiness Report year after year. It regularly finishes among the top 10 countries for educational performance in the PISA rankings. But most shocking of all? Finland has killed off handwriting.

Or has it? A few years back it was reported that Finland had decided to no longer teach cursive in schools. At times accompanied by images of children staring eagerly into the blue glow of a computer screen, articles explained the move in terms of a world increasingly oriented towards computers: “keyboard skills” are more than “handwriting classes”.

The news set off an international wave of hand-wringing and passionate defenses of cursive and handwriting in general, especially as the Finnish decision arrived on the heels of a similar decision in the US to remove cursive from its Common Core State Standards. Would this worrying trend lead to the death of handwriting?

We would be the first to argue that the death of handwriting would be a very, very bad thing. Handwriting is the first technology to help our words travel across space and time, and deliver joy from far-flung locales. Its applications can help us bring order to chaos, and in a world of distraction, handwriting can help us focus. At school, handwritten notes are better than typed notes for helping us remember. In business, handwritten notes can make a huge impact with employees and customers.

However, Finland’s decision was to drop cursive, not handwriting, and it’s essential not to conflate the two (as many reports unfortunately did). The Finns did, and do, continue to teach children how to hand-write the alphabet, words, sentences and texts. What they have discontinued is the teaching of a second special joined-up script.

Scripts come and go. In Europe, the last two millennia have brought us many different styles of writing the Latin-based languages, including mediaeval Merovingian script, Charlemagne’s Carolingian minuscule, black letter (Gothic) script, and Renaissance-era Italics. In the last century and half in the US, for example, the ornate Spencerian script (as seen in the Coca-Cola logo) was replaced by the plainer Palmer Method, which allegedly helped hand-writers compete with typewriters on speed. The Zaner-Bloser script and the D’Nealian Method followed. Each new script and method claims to better negotiate the necessary trade-off between writing speed and legibility.

When the Finns sounded the death knell for cursive instruction, they were struggling with their own problem of competing scripts. In Finland, compulsory schooling starts at age 7, and children were usually taught block handwriting in their first year, then cursive in their second year, after which it was assumed that children had sufficiently learned how to write both scripts and language education could then move on to focus on other aspects of writing, like structure and argumentation.

But the physical act of writing requires a lot of fine-motor training, and one year wasn’t enough for children to master the mechanics of cursive, as Minna Harmanen, from Finland’s National Board of Education said. Teachers observed that in later grades kids were abandoning cursive for block print handwriting, because their cursive – like children’s in many countries – remained laborious and slow. If you can’t write cursive fast, then what’s the point?

Because speed is the point. Joined-up handwriting is actually the natural product of fluent handwriting. Meaning that anybody who prints well, and strives to write faster, will naturally start joining up their handwriting. If you need proof, just scribble out your own signature (in which you’ll most likely see that likely speed won out over legibility long ago.)

If joined-up writing is the product of fluency, then in some ways formal cursive instruction could be seen as putting the cart before the horse. It’s artificially teaching children the natural product of fluent writing long before they’re actually fluent writers. It’s something akin to teaching early English language learners to say things like gonna, wanna, gotta or kinda. As reduced forms of going to, want to, (have) got to, and kind of, they’re a kind of verbal cursive, the spoken version of joined-up writing. Now that they’re also common in informal written English, as in social media, it might be important to teach learners to recognize and understand them – just like you might still want to teach students to read cursive. But in terms of production, they don’t need to be taught. Learners will use these forms spontaneously when they’re sufficiently fluent.

It’s just this approach that the Finns seem to be taking with writing. In 2016, the Finnish National Board of Education adopted the Alku Handwriting System, a method of writing block print letters in a fluid continuous manner. Like all formalized scripts and methods since antiquity, the system dictates when the pen stroke goes up, down, and across, and possibilities for making connections between letters. It’s not your grandmother’s cursive. But it does facilitate, with fluency, non-interrupted writing – essentially replacing two distinct scripts with one.

If other national education systems join Finland and the US in deprioritizing cursive – in the sense of a second joined-up script to learn alongside block printing – then cursive may well die out. But as long as handwriting is taught, and kids learn to become fluent writers, joined-up writing isn’t going anywhere. Until then, it’s ironic that the computer, far from killing perfect flowing penmanship, may endure as its best showcase.