Cursive Causes a Cringeworthy Moment

The George Zimmerman trial also showed how technology is hurting young people.

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Jacob Langston, Pool-Orlando Sentinel/AP Photo
Witness Rachel Jeantel, left, continues her testimony to defense attorney Don West on day 14 of George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Thursday, June 27, 2013. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

How many of us cringed when Rachel Jeantel, a prosecution witness in the George Zimmerman trial, failed to read aloud a piece of paper handed to her, explaining that she didn't read cursive?

It was a stunning comment by a young adult female, and fed the harsh notion that the woman – who appeared, understandably, to be very uncomfortable on the stand talking about her friend's shooting death – was not very bright. It may well have affected her credibility on the stand, fairly or not.

But the issue here may not be Jeantel (who also speaks two foreign languages), but how we teach children language and written communication in the Internet era. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that technology has indeed made kids better collaborators, since they tend to share what they write with each other and are exposed to different points of view on the Internet. But it also has led children to use poor grammar and informal verbiage in their writing. Further, the amount of information available on the Internet – some of it terrific and some of it outright, factually wrong – has teachers worried about plagiarism.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

It's not that kids who don't text all the time will be able to write well. And it's not that being forced to use an encyclopedia or other printed information will prevent students from stealing other people's work. But technology makes it so much easier to do so. A kid who is determined to lift passages from a book used to have to actually go to the trouble of typing it out. Now, cut-and-paste allows people to commit the infraction much more easily – and arguably, sometimes inadvertently, as students and even reporters paste information in their electronic notes.

Actually looking someone in the eye and chuckling aloud is better than writing "LOL" in a text. And while typing on a computer is surely faster and more convenient than writing longhand, it doesn't replace the handwritten word.

Some schools are considering getting rid of cursive instruction altogether, and that would be a mistake, if for no other reason than that it's not practical to presume a device for typing will always be available. And no tablet keyboard can take the place of a unique signature for documents. Jeantel was ridiculed for her inability to read cursive, but her lack of education masks a bigger problem. Technology is useful, but it can't take the place of thinking and writing.

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