Generation Z'ers: technologically sophisticated but can't read grandma's letters


March 29, 2023

I was a bit shocked when our married daughter said, "You'll have to print or type letters and cards to the grandkids because they can't read cursive writing. Better yet, send them texts." I checked around with other grandparents and they verified what I had just learned...many Generation Y folks (also known as millennials, born 1981-1996) and certainly Generation Z kids (born 1997-2010) cannot read or write cursive writing. Don't the schools still have all those posters along the tops of blackboards that show how to write lower case and capital letters? What happened to the Palmer method? Here's some of what I learned about the demise of cursive writing and a new program to reinvigorate the form of writing that most folks of a certain age learned in elementary school.

The beginning of the end for cursive writing

Cursive writing by English speakers first began in the 17th century as a faster and more efficient way for people to write words by connecting the letters. Most American school children first learn to print letters. About the third grade they were (are) introduced to cursive writing. After much rethinking about all the necessary subjects in school curricula many educational leaders agreed too much time was spent on learning and practicing cursive writing, especially in light of more writing being done with the aid of electronic devices. Many school systems replaced the requirement to "demonstrate proficiency in cursive writing" with "demonstrate proficiency in use of a keyboard."

Despite the fact that many state and local school systems removed cursive writing from the official curriculum, many teachers still taught that method of writing along with keyboard use. Some advocates of keeping cursive writing in the schools point to studies that concluded notetakers using keyboards tended to compile more words but did not discriminate among important and irrelevant information they recorded. Keyboarding is a faster way to collect information but may not be better for learning. The pro's and con's of teaching cursive writing verses keyboarding is still being debated.

The first significant drop in teaching cursive writing began around 2010 when states began removing the subject from their state core requirements. By 2020, with pushback on several fronts, some 15 states had added cursive writing back to the curriculum and other state were debating the topic as well. Whichever way the cursive writing issue shakes out among educators there are already a whole bunch of people who cannot read cursive. In Montana there is no requirement to teach cursive writing but also no prohibition against it being taught. Most observers here agree teaching cursive writing is a decision made by individual school systems or even individual teachers.

Avoiding roadblocks to accessing historical documents

As the discussion about the merits of teaching or not teaching cursive writing wears on, one thing is clear-with huge amounts of history and other documents written in cursive, there will always be a need for people who can read, interpret and write cursive. Unfortunately the number of people who can read and write cursive is rapidly declining simply because using electronic devices for writing is more expedient.

Recognizing this dwindling number of cursive writers and readers a consortium of Montana colleges has announced plans to create a degree program in Cursive Studies. The terminal graduate degree program will lead to a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Cursive Studies.

Though still in the development stage, the colleges have created an advisory board representing institutions around the country that hold huge amounts of handwritten documents and still require a supply of people who can read, transcribe and do research about cursive writing. Advisory board members come from various branches and levels of government, publishing houses, military branches, businesses, all levels of education, museums and groups working with family histories. The program will not only study general techniques of reading and writing cursive but will also look at various popular writing methods, like the Palmer Method. The Palmer Method was one of the most widely accepted programs for teaching children how to do cursive writing.

Part of the graduate degree program will involve teaching research methods and techniques to students in the program. One advisory committee member from industry was quoted in a recent interview, "When it became impossible to hire people trained in shorthand, executives found themselves having to make their own meeting notes or calendar notes of things to be done." He opined that Speedwriting, a method that requires only 12 weeks of training, came about as an alternative to the longer time required to learn shorthand. He added, "I'm hoping some creative students will come out of this new program and develop a truly efficient and easy way to take notes."

The organizers of the new graduate cursive studies program hope they will be able to place graduates from the program with organizations that need interpreters of historical writings done in cursive. One potential faculty member noted, "There are all sorts of museums, libraries and genealogical groups that have offered to take our students as interns and let them see what sorts of challenges are out there." It's assumed that some of the original graduates of the Cursive Studies program will help create future degree programs for baccalaureate and even two year degree programs. Graduates from these 'branch' programs could move directly into organizations needing cursive writing interpreters. Graduates of programs could also work as consultants helping individuals transcribe and understand personal histories found in diaries to family letters.

Funding a start-up terminal degree of this magnitude, finding the ideal location for a new campus and building a new facility will be financially staggering.. Already the advisory committee and people developing the specifics of the program are searching for a new building site and reaching out to foundations and non-profits to provide the initial funding. Some observers say that governments at all levels are some of the largest holders of documents written in cursive and should look for ways to create tax based support for the new graduate program. That, of course, has already raised alarms about raising taxes and the challenges that go with that course of action. Only time will tell if the new program can be successfully launched...and cursive writing can be restored.

Oh, and in case you haven’t figured it out this is my annual April Fools Day story. I hope you read it as I intended…not in cursive but with tongue in cheek.


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