Manitoba education resists national enthusiasm for cursive handwriting instruction

By Maggie Macintosh
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Winnipeg Free Press

Lessons in longhand are being reinstated in some parts of the country after decades of script’s decline across Canadian public schools, but Manitoba has written off a cursive comeback.

Starting in September, Ontario’s incoming Grade 3 students will hone the fluid writing style on an annual basis in a curricular update being celebrated by that province’s officials and language education experts who argue cursive is a critical mechanism for mastering other life skills.

The recent announcement has brought about a national debate over the value of being able to sign in cursive in the 21st century.

Not only does script develop a student’s fine motor skills and allow them to write faster, but research suggests it improves studying overall, said Norma Jones, a retired reading clinician who now works part time as a private tutor in Winnipeg.

“I’m very in favour of a focus on the basics,” Jones said. “(Cursive) requires you to really focus, so it improves attention and it improves comprehension.”

Manitoba’s new English Language Arts curriculum, which was released in 2020, lays out broad learning outcomes and encourages teachers to use their professional judgment to build competent young readers and writers.

Cursive is mentioned once in the 134-page document.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said the province’s approach to literacy instruction recognizes the need for flexible forms of writing in a digital world.

“Currently in Manitoba, early, middle and senior years educators focus on clear, legible and effective communication appropriate to the purpose,” Ewasko said in a statement.

Shelley Drewniak hands out independent study booklets to her Grades 5 and 6 students at the start of the year, so they can practice penmanship first thing in the morning.

It’s usually only for five to 10 minutes prior to announcements, but if focused, a lot can get done in a little bit of time, said Drewniak, president of the Manitoba Elementary Teachers’ Association.

While noting some of her colleagues are huge supporters of script and her students are increasingly entering her classroom with poorer handwriting, Drewniak said teachers are strapped for time when it comes to covering all the things they want to do during any given year.

“We don’t even know what kind of jobs or opportunities or what we will need 10 years from now, so you’re teaching kids based on the unknown future,” she said, listing off Indigenous teachings, mental health and environmentalism as subjects that should be prioritized in 2023-24.

“It’s important to give them the most variety of everything that the world has to offer to them.”

At the high school level, when students are typically asked to write however they please as long as it’s legible, roughly five per cent of teenagers taught by Elizabeth Bourbonniere are choosing to use cursive.

The incoming president of the Manitoba Association of Teachers of English attributed the dwindling use to a patchwork of script instruction in younger grades.

The teacher’s own children, who are in middle school, never learned it formally, so she took matters into her own hands so they could, at the very least, know how to sign their names and read handwritten letters.

The high school teacher said she is eager to learn about the results of Ontario’s cursive mandate.

Among the champions of Ontario’s updated curriculum is Hetty Roessingh, a professor emerita at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education who researches early language and literacy development.

“It’s a mistake to marginalize handwriting. It is just a critical, crucial need and has so many benefits,” said Roessingh, an advocate for explicit longhand instruction in Grades 2, 3 and 4, followed by teacher monitoring.

While acknowledging there is limited research on cursive in and of itself, the academic noted neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have made numerous discoveries about the “hand-brain complex” that show children make meaning and sense of the world through tactile experiences.

Typing will never be a substitute for “clean, uncluttered and italic script,” Roessingh said, adding clicking on a keyboard will never replace the deeply emotional and gratifying act of penning a handwritten love letter, thank-you note or memorial card.

If her soon-to-be third grader does not learn cursive in class, Alyssa Multan said she will assign homework after hours.

“I love communicating via writing, it’s more personal,” the Winnipeg mother said, noting her son’s grandmother lives abroad and writes to them frequently, but he cannot read the contents of her letters.

At the same time, Multan said it is undeniable the skill is not as necessary as it once was. “Now students can have the smallest computers and type anything to record information.”