A kid who has his own illegible handwriting may face some obstacles later on in his educational career. Steve Graham, who studies education and literacy at Vanderbilt University and was among the experts cited in the Times piece, notes that kids with sloppy handwriting have been shown to score lower on tests, regardless of the content of their ideas. Bias against poor penmanship can push a score by two standard deviations."People form opinions about the quality of ideas based on the handwriting," he says.
So unless we can do away with handwriting altogether and all at once, it's blatantly unfair not to teach every student proper cursive. We needn't worry over messy signatures, or a loss of fine motor skills or artistic expression. None of that really matters. The problem is that kids will write in cursive whether we're teaching it or not. And they ought to be able to do it as effectively as possible.
It's understandable that school principles would think about cutting penmanship class. After all, while our children waste their time perfecting that preposterous lower-case z, Indian and Chinese children are tinkering with their space elevators and hydrogen cars for the science fair. Maybe we don't have time to teach children to type in addition to writing in both print and cursive.
Fischer offers the right solution: Let's stop teaching children to write in printed script. Forcing children to write in such a formal, inefficient style wastes everyone's time. Worse, it encourages them to trade off legibility by developing their own haphazard cursive. There are other options: For a 2009 column, Slate's "Human Guinea Pig" joined her daughter in learning the Barchowsky method, a hybrid style of writing that's quick to use and easy to pick up.
"When we don't teach penmanship, the result is an ugly, unaesthetic, and illegible script," says Fischer. "Ugliness is unimportant. Aesthetics are unimportant to many people. But illegibility defeats the purpose of writing. There must be a standard."
Correction, May 1, 2011: This article originally noted that individual characters came to stand in for letters. To be more precise, individual characters came to stand in for the sounds with which modern speakers identify letters. (Return to the corrected sentence.)