Losing Treasures; the Need for Cursive

Article for the school paper, March, 2017

An example of Sutterlin script

An example of Sutterlin script

I have a treasure in my home, but I cannot access it. The treasure is a box of letters and postcards from grandparents, great-grandparents, great aunts, and others of my family. I am unable to access it not because of language (though my German is rusty, I’ll admit), but because they are written in Sütterlin script. If you are unfamiliar with Sütterlin, you are far from alone. It was a form of German cursive introduced in the early 1900s, and formally banned in 1941. Consequently, native writers (and therefore, readers), of Sütterlin are no more. Were I to want to read these thoughts, hopes, and dreams inherited from my family, I would need to hire an expert, a paleographer, to decipher them for me. It is a shame, but such is history.

However, we are skirting the edge of just such a conundrum with a much larger body of works, which includes genealogical records, historical records, and even our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I am speaking of course, of cursive. Common Core Standards have de-emphasized teaching cursive in the classroom, and while most schools still teach it at some point, it is often a sideline or occasional topic. The result, not surprisingly, is a generation of students who not only cannot write in cursive but cannot read it.  That puts a huge body of material out of reach of many readers. If it’s a shame that I might need to consult an expert to read great-grandmother Kettenhofen’s letters, how much more so would it be if most of us needed to do so in order to read our founding documents?

Happily, cursive seems to have garnered a resurgence of support. There is a growing body of evidence that handwriting generally leads to more effective learning as opposed to typing, and cursive in particular has advantages in promoting better spelling and word comprehension. Even the International Dyslexia Association advocates it. Locally, the Indiana Senate has approved a bill (now headed to the House), that would bring cursive back into the classroom. One of our own facuty spoke out in support of the bill and of teaching cursive in a recent interview with a local news outlet. Our school, as you may know, is one of the few schools in the area area that still teaches cursive. Our students begin it in third grade and continue to practice weekly through sixth grade. I’ve been working with my eighth-grade students on cursive as well (aided by the provision of fountain pens, curiosities they seem to find endlessly fascinating), and I am happy to say that while most of them still struggle with it a bit, they really do enjoy it. They have even been quick to remind me if it has been a while since we practiced cursive. 

I’d like to suggest that all of our students can benefit from spending some time with cursive throughout their education, both at school and at home. It is quite easy to find practice sheets online, or even to download a computer font in order to make one’s own. I have found that doing so helps to make it more appealing; writing literary quotes may appeal to us as adults, but let’s face it, your kids will probably enjoy writing out names of Harry Potter spells a bit more. And you don’t even need a fountain pen.*

*But it might help!

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