News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
5 Aug 2017
5:30 am

Apparently learning cursive still matters in 2017

William Saunderson-Meyer

A recent 10-country study by the London School of Economics found university students are not abandoning pen and paper.

AFP/File / Jewel Samad

It was the terror of every schoolboy. Schoolgirls, it seemed, coped far better with its rigours. It was called the Cursive Handwriting Chart.

And an education department official assures me in an interview that it remains in use throughout the land. Every class in the numerous junior schools I attended shared this single teaching aid.

It was a large, laminated wall display chart that showed how each letter of the alphabet ideally should be written, in both lowercase and capitals, as well as having a sentence to illustrate how the letters joined to form words.

In English it was: “We always give only our very best.” I knew this not to be true of me.

However dutiful my intentions, my cursive was a Jackson Pollock-like rendition, albeit in monochrome, of swirls and whirls, blobs and smears.

It was to my own, private despair, at least while in grade school.

For some reason, despite the evidence to the contrary, I somehow convinced myself that I would be allowed to leave this hated institution, school, as soon as I had mastered reading and writing.

So I determinedly soared ahead at reading, but my cursive writing sucked. The best I could achieve was a higgledy-piggledy scrawl, humiliating for me, illegible to the reader.

In contrast, my father’s handwriting was regular, with truncated tall- and drop-letters, as if he had taken secateurs to them.

His sentences rippled across the page, each word, depending on length, either a choppy pool or river. My mother’s handwriting was small and neat.

Such legibility may have been a function of her always considerate nature, or simply a function of the fact that since she had the parental duty of communicating with the children when they were away from home, I was just accustomed to deciphering it.

The writing of the next generation, that of my own daughters, is murkier. Because of the remorseless usurping of old-fashioned writing by typed texting and e-mails, I would today struggle to unearth an example that is less than two-dozen years old.

And there lies the rub. In a digital world, the ability to replicate cursive is about as useful a talent as being able to start the braai by rubbing sticks together.

There are more efficient alternatives and, even if you do need to pen a shopping list, block letters surely suffice?

Not according to South Africa’s pedagogues.

They are emphatic that handwriting exercises are critical for perceptual and motor skills development. Not everyone has a computer, so pupils need to be able to write quickly and clearly. There is other support for what the academics call chirographic writing.

A recent 10-country study by the London School of Economics found that university students are not abandoning pen and paper.

While digital technologies are embraced for their speed and effectiveness, writing by hand was held to have special qualities.

Many students claimed handwritten notes led to better retention of information than when typed. Italian students cited the sensory qualities of cursive, including the fragrance of the paper as it is inked.

For many, it was about what they were writing: digital on-screen media was preferred for academic work because of its speed and legibility.

Private emotions and intimate feelings were best conveyed by handwriting and paper.

For me, however, the Cursive Handwriting Chart will always evoke a little shudder of revulsion – a reminder of 12 years’ hard labour, with no time off for good behaviour.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.