Why do we teach children two different systems of handwriting? © Cybrarian77
There’s something deeply peculiar about the way we teach children to play the violin. It’s a very difficult skill for them to master—getting their fingers under control, holding the bow properly, learning how to move it over the strings without scratching and slipping. But just as they are finally getting there, are beginning to feel confident, to hit the right notes, to sound a bit like the musicians they hear, we break the news to them: we’ve taught them to play left-handed, but now it’s time to do it like grown-ups do, the other way around.
Alright, I’m fibbing. Of course we don’t teach violin that way. We wouldn’t do anything so absurd for something as important as learning an instrument, would we? No—but that’s how we teach children to write.
It’s best not to examine the analogy too deeply, but you see the point. The odd thing is that, when most parents watch their child’s hard-earned gains in forming letters like those printed in their storybooks crumble under the demand that they now relearn the art of writing “joined up” (“and don’t forget the joining tail!”), leaving their calligraphy a confused scrawl of extraneous cusps and wiggles desperately seeking a home, they don’t ask what on earth the school thinks it is doing. They smile, comforted that their child is starting to write like them.
As he or she probably will. The child may develop the same abominable scribble that gets letters misdirected and medical prescriptions perilously misread. In his impassioned plea for the art of good handwriting, Philip Hensher puts his finger on the issue (while apparently oblivious to it):
“You longed to do ‘joined-up writing,’ as we used to call the cursive hand when we were young… I looked forward to the ability to join one letter to another as a mark of huge sophistication. Adult handwriting was unreadable, true, but perhaps that was its point.”
The real point is, of course, that “sophistication.” When I questioned my friend, a primary school teacher, about the value of teaching cursive, she was horrified. “But otherwise they’d have baby writing!” she exclaimed. I pointed out that my handwriting is printed (the so-called “manuscript” form). “Oh no, yours is fine,” she—not the placatory sort—allowed. I didn’t ask whether…