The Lamentable Loss of America’s Literacy


While I was on vacation last week, I heard some very disturbing news. My state has adopted the Common Core State Standards curriculum that eliminates ‘cursive writing skills’ from the core curriculum of public schools. I was shocked. Shocked that any state would do such a thing, and shocked to learn that 45 states had already slipped past my notice. I’ve been writing that “education reform” is a major factor in the environment that is affecting the library in the 21st Century, but who would have thought it would go that far. I guess anyone can suffer from short sightedness.

How I missed this School Library Journal article from July 19, 2011, is a mystery that upsets me, but not nearly as much as what this “reform” is doing to education of young people. According to this Cursive Out Of Common Core Standards, But Still Hanging On article;

Currently, 46 states have adopted the Common Core curriculum, bringing some commonality to what all students are expected to learn across the country – and eventually, what they will be tested on as well. While most educators agree that keyboarding – or learning how to use a computer’s keyboard – is a critical skill in our increasingly digital age, there are still uses for handwriting, albeit fewer.

Despite the fact that the Common Core website shows only 45 states have adopted the curriculum, I’m still in shock. Actually, I was stunned a few years ago when I was close to a boy and girl (brother and sister of relatives) who were in middle school and had the worst handwriting I’d ever seen, and could not read cursive at their grade level. I later understood a bit more when I came across Jason Dorsey: The Gen-Y Guy and his video where he laments about the millennial who couldn’t read a handwritten note from his boss.

But, I honestly did not have that cognitive “moment” where I really understood that our society is becoming less literate than ever until I heard that cursive writing is out of the core curriculum across most of America. I’ve even seen that lack of ability to write cursive can inhibit reading comprehension skills. So, now we won’t be able to read or write? WHOSE ASININE IDEA WAS THIS?

No doubt some of you are wondering why in this Information Age of technology and computers – when I’ve written that we’ll soon be able to simply speak to computers and not even keyboard – that I should be shocked. It’s like the SLJ article states;

Some note that as fewer students are taught cursive, the ability to read historical documents may decrease – much like an ancient language slowly disappearing from common use.

How sad that is! It’s not that our language – the basis of our culture – is dying during our lifetime, it’s that we’re deliberately killing it! To be replaced by what? Some texting shorthand jargon that few non-digital natives understand? TM IM TILII. (Trust me, I’m telling it like it is.)

So what? How does this impact the librarianship profession?
How difficult do you think it will be:
– to work with young people who can’t read cursive?
– to answer reference questions from people who can’t write – only type?
– to help a customer with a call number in their best handwriting?

Although, the advantages to the profession will be:
– not having to erase writing from books,
– not having to erase writing from drymark boards or walls,
– not having to remove writing from bathroom stalls,

I’m sure many of you can recognize the disadvantages to any society that is unable to write or read its own language except in computer text. Tell us what they are. I’m too stunned to think of them all.

ADDENDUM:
My initial review of the Common Core Standards revealed that the word “cursive” was not in the Standards – anywhere. A reader comment prompted me to more closely read the Standards for reading and writing requirements. I’m not encouraged.

Under “Language Standards” the Kindergartners (under the Conventions of Standard English section), are supposed to “1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.” by (among other skills) “a. Print many upper- and lowercase letters.” Grade 1 students are supposed to “a. Print all upper- and lowercase letters.” (Pg. 26) That’s it. Writing letters is not mentioned again.

Under “Writing Standards” (which one would think included “writing” letters – silly me), Kindergartners (under the Production and Distribution of Writing section) are supposed to “6. With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers. (Pg. 19) Grade 3 students are supposed to “6. With guidance and support from adults, use technology to produce and publish writing (using keyboarding skills) as well as to interact and collaborate with others. (Pg. 21)

My more informed concern now is that after Grade 1, kids will no longer be expected to handwrite anything, they will be expected to increase their “keyboarding” skills. Even in Kindergarten kids can produce written documents using “technology to produce and publish writing.” There is NO expectation for kids to EVER use handwriting!

Maybe this falls under the “everything I need to know in life I learned in Kindergarten” philosophy, but I still think it’s leading to a disastrous future for literacy. Like I wrote – WHOSE ASININE IDEA WAS THIS?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “The Lamentable Loss of America’s Literacy

  1. I’m surprised at the leap you’re making from “cursive writing is out of the core curriculum” to “our language – the basis of our culture – is dying during our lifetime.” Cursive is merely a script and language will survive in its absence. Indeed, language has survived the demise of Uncial majuscule, Luxeuil minuscule, Blackletter, and countless other scripts.

    Though, I do agree that grammar and spelling have been going right down the drain over the past few decades. But, alas, that’s a separate issue from the script in which students choose to commit their grammatical sins.

    • Although I’m totally unfamiliar with the scripts you mention (kudos to you for knowing them), I’m going to assume that they were replaced by some other type of hand written script and simply fell out of popular use. I think cursive hand writing skill is more than “merely a script.” Not being taught to write by hand any more seems like a very big deal to me. If one stops to think about how many times every day they use hand writing, and then try to figure out what would replace that, it’s staggering.

      Maybe my digital immigrant generation is showing, but it seems totally awkward and exceedingly more complicated than necessary to have to pull out the electronic device (I assume digital natives leave it on 24/7), open the appropriate app, make whatever notation one needs to, then show the screen to whomever one is trying to communicate with. Pencil and paper are much easier, more portable and they NEVER run out of juice.

      I appreciate your optimism, and I guess time will tell whether society can truly become paperless. Well – I guess it might as well since we’re going to become writerless.

  2. I think I see the confusion.

    For the past century or so, we’ve been teaching students two distinct letter forms: block (or “print”) and cursive. Far from eliminating handwriting, the Common Core Standards explicitly require that students learn to print letters, numbers, and punctuation and learn to express themselves through writing (cf. the K-5 Langauge Standards). The difference is that the standards do not include the specifically cursive style of lettering (looped, flowing letters) that is typically taught well after students learn to write in block lettering.

    Interestingly, the history of orthographic reform has seen a continual return to block letters. From the inscriptions on Trajan’s column to the Carolingian minuscule of Charlemagne to Times New Roman, our block lettering has remained largely unchanged. I could print “DE LAUDE SCRIPTORUM” in capital block letters and Cicero could read it; “de laude scriptorum” in lowercase block letters and Petrarch could read it. But, write it in cursive, and both would be scratching their heads because It’s the cursive-style lettering that comes and goes. Sure, future students may struggle to read the handwritten Declaration of Independence. But, we struggle to read the handwritten Canterbury Tales of the Ellesmere Manuscript. Only the Roman block letters and Carolingian minuscule have so far stood the test of time and, thankfully, students are still expected to learn them.

    • My initial review of the Common Core Standards revealed that the word “cursive” was not in the Standards – anywhere. Your comment prompted me to more closely read the Standards for reading and writing requirements. I’m not encouraged.

      Under “Language Standards” the Kindergartners (under the Conventions of Standard English section), are supposed to “1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.” by (among other skills) “a. Print many upper- and lowercase letters.” Grade 1 students are supposed to “a. Print all upper- and lowercase letters.” (Pg. 26) That’s it. Writing letters is not mentioned again.

      Under “Writing Standards” (which one would think included “writing” letters – silly me), Kindergartners (under the Production and Distribution of Writing section) are supposed to “6. With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers. (Pg. 19) Grade 3 students are supposed to “6. With guidance and support from adults, use technology to produce and publish writing (using keyboarding skills) as well as to interact and collaborate with others. (Pg. 21)

      My concern is that after Grade 1, kids will no longer be expected to handwrite anything, they will be expected to increase their “keyboarding” skills. Even in Kindergarten kids can produce written documents using “technology to produce and publish writing.” There is NO expectation for kids to EVER use handwriting!

      Maybe this falls under the “everything I need to know in life I learned in Kindergarten” philosophy, but I still think it’s leading to a disastrous future for literacy. Like I wrote – WHOSE ASININE IDEA WAS THIS?

  3. Crazy Dave

    It doesn’t matter what script students use to write, as long as they can write. What I get from this article is that students are not being taught to read, or write, handwriting (of any script). And that is sad!

    Welcome to the Digital Age! Where your average 4yo can turn on and unlock Mum’s phone to play Angry Birds. Where your average 6yo can search the web and type up and email.
    But it is also where your average 15yo can’t read the handwriting of your average 30yo, the average 30yo can’t understand the shorthand of the average 15yo, and neither of them knows how to leave a handwritten note for their parents or The Boss about a phone call that was just received. That is if they could get away from their Social Networking to actually answer the phone.

    And before you ask, I am 37.

    • Thanks for your comment Dave, and I wasn’t going to ask, because it doesn’t matter to me how old people are, just whether they have worthwhile comments for the conversation, which yours is IMHO. 🙂
      Thanks

  4. Pingback: The Lamentable Loss of America’s Literacy | Answers | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: The Lamentable Loss of America’s Literacy | Teens, Youth & Libraries | Scoop.it

  6. Kay Dee

    Well….while some folks broke out their wikipedia and dictionary to formulate a reply to your blog…I simply used a piece of paper and a pen.

    I wrote out a set of instructions in my very best cursive and asked everyone in our staff room to read it. This “test group” included about 10 people in all ranging in age from 17 to 49. The two youngest couldn’t read what I had written…

    The ensuing horror and incredulity of the other 8 created a conversation that lasted all day. As one staff member pointed out, “it’s one thing when evolution of ANYTHING happens organically and over generations….its another when change is, in essence, forced simply due to such a lowering of the bar or out of sheer laziness as a society.” Another staff member asked “So when are they going to stop teaching geometry? I use that alot less than I ever did cursive!”

    Good point…

    OR…looking at the up-side: Now all the REAL grownups have a secret language! We no longer have to spell in front of the “children” we can just write… LOL… (ah the ironey…the grownups will know BOTH languages (cursive AND SMS) and the children will only know one…is that really evolution or a self-created handicap?)

  7. My first thought while reading your post was of the census and how they would track who can read and write. I wonder how they will judge literacy in the future…especially if hand writing in general is discontinued in favor of digital writing.

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