Cursive Handwriting The Demise of a Cultural Technique

From 2016 onwards in Finland the children are no longer going to learn cursive handwriting, in Switzerland the pupils only learn a basic script. Also in Germany the abolition of cursive handwriting is discussed.

At the beginning of 2015 a report from Finland in the German media caused quite a stir. “Finland is abolishing handwriting in schools,” stated the Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper dramatically. The Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin reported that the children in Finland “would in future only learn how to type, instead of writing by hand.” Suddenly a public debate broke out all over Germany: Do we really want our children to no longer have to learn how to put words and sentences on paper with a pen? Is it not, on the contrary, our duty to preserve the art of handwriting?

Interestingly enough, it was not the total abolition of handwriting that was being debated. The Finns had only decided to do without a second script – cursive or joined-up handwriting. As in Germany the Finnish children have up to now also had to learn two scripts: first the block-letter script and then in second grade the cursive script, which requires the letters to be joined up and the pen not being lifted from the page.

This switching from one script to the other as a rule costs the children a lot of time and effort. Their fine motor skills have to be adapted to the flow of the actual writing. Furthermore they have to learn completely new ways of writing certain letters, because the cursive form is very different from the previously learnt block-letter form. The Finnish approach involves doing without the special cursive script and focusing, instead, on how to deal with keyboards – as a complement, however, to the handwriting they have already learnt, and not as a substitute.

No longer part of the syllabus

From a realistic point of view the Finns have taken a step that has been on the agenda in Germany for quite a few years and has actually long since been adopted by some schools in the federal states of Hamburg and North-Rhine Westphalia. The children in these states do not have to learn to use a keyboard to write with, but the cursive script is in fact no longer part of the syllabus. Instead the so-called basic script is taught, a writing technique very similar to the block-letter script, in which many letters have a little hook on them so that the children can join them up to other letters – but do not have to, if they don’t want. This basic script was developed by the members of the Grundschulverband – an interest group made up of teachers, researchers and education experts.

One of the schools using this method is the Regenbogenschule in Moers in North-Rhine Westphalia. The Head Teacher, Ulrich Hecker, always found it absurd to teach the children the block letter script for one year and then switch to standardised cursive handwriting. “This led to confusion among many children and poor handwriting,” says Hecker, who is also Deputy Chairperson of the Grundschulverband. He went on to say that he prefers to use lessons for other things, such as reading promotion or how to use a keyboard, as is the case in Finland. “For me it is important that the children are able to type a text, to save it and to correct it,” he says, emphasising at the same time that they do not have to learn the ten-finger system, but just how to generally use a keyboard. He thinks it is a good thing that this is already part of the syllabus in Finland. “And I know that handwriting is still important in Finland,” he says. As it is at his school.

The Swiss basic script

As in Finland the politicians responsible for education in Switzerland have also dared to take this great step – at the end of 2014 the Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, which is the equivalent of the German Kultusministerkonferenz (Conference of Ministers of Education), recommended a changeover from the joined up, curly script to the basic script which is hardly joined up at all. Although the individual cantons will decide when exactly they want to change over, Jürg Brühlmann from the Dachverband Lehrerinnen und Lehrer (Teachers’ Umbrella Association) is convinced that most cantons will switch soon. "A lot of teachers have already changed to the new system or will do so in the near future,“ he says.

The canton of Lucerne paved the way for the new approach. They introduced the basic script in schools there back in 2010. The idea being to enable the children to develop a personal form of handwriting that is easily legible. “This is of special significance, especially due to the fact that so much is typed these days,” says Jürg Brühlmann. “The joined-up script takes the long way round.” In contrast to Finland, however, typing on a keyboard has not replaced it. After all, as Brühlmann says, it not clear whether keyboards will still be in use at all in ten years’ time. “These days so many things are already being written with just one or two fingers on tablets and mobile phones.”

Write fluently, think fluently

In Germany the Conference of Ministers of Education has up to now explicitly supported keeping the cursive handwriting script. Advocates consider it to be essential for the optimal cognitive development of the children. They argue that only through the specific motor skills required for fluent, unbroken handwriting would certain mental abilities come to fruition. Furthermore good handwriting can only come about via the joined-up cursive script.

The critics, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the laborious learning of the cursive script is more detrimental to the development of a child’s handwriting. As proof they cite the generally poor handwriting of German schoolchildren. Advocates, on the other hand, say that the cursive handwriting script is not to blame, but rather digitalisation and the meagre fine motor skills of the youngsters. But wasn’t it the cursive script that was supposed to improve these skills?Despite the somewhat convoluted discussion many federal states in Germany, among them Bremen, Hesse and Hamburg, have in the meantime adopted a more pragmatic approach – the schools themselves can decide which form of handwriting they want to teach.