What is the argument in favor of teaching cursive?

By Michelle Riddell
@MLRiddell

My sixth-grade daughter can’t sign her name. She can print it and, of course, type it, but she doesn’t have a unique, handwritten script that identifies as her signature. She is also illiterate when it comes to reading cursive, needing me to “translate” things like greeting cards, letters from her grandma, and even a picture of an old map in her social studies book. As inconsequential as that may seem at her age, when my daughter has nothing to pen but the occasional Valentine or student handbook pledge, what will she do when she gets a passport or a bank account? Print? E-sign?

The 2009 elimination of cursive from the Common Core education standards may have been the most controversial change to elementary school curriculum since mandating physical education. Historically, cursive writing was introduced in the middle of third grade, and by fifth grade students were expected to use it exclusively for all written work.

The current guidelines say “sufficient command of keyboarding skills” but the mention of any specific handwriting goals has been notably omitted. Now in third or fourth grade, at the teacher’s discretion, kids are taught the scripted alphabet as individual characters, spending perhaps five minutes a day tracing the formation of each one, but they don’t practice connecting letters into words or learn to recognize the font by reading cursive sentences. Since it is up to the teacher, and no longer in the curriculum, many students aren’t exposed to cursive writing at all.

In less than ten years, cursive writing has gone from a tool of conveyance to a novelty art, because like any other academic skill, when it is presented as optional it will never be mastered.

The updated proficiency requirements of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy stress depth over width, favoring the study of fewer topics in greater detail with an emphasis on evidence and computer-generated research, and are devoid of any mechanical specifics regarding either cursive or manuscript (printing). Though the initiatives were adopted by forty-two states and the District of Colombia in late 2010, policy implementation moves at glacial speed, and so we are only recently seeing serious pushback from educators and parents. 

Initially, teachers applauded the purge of cursive writing instruction. As technology’s role in the classroom increased and computer literacy became vital, many in the school community viewed penmanship as a waste of time. With the demands of meeting standardized teaching requirements, educators felt classroom hours would be better spent teaching assessed subjects, e.g., measurement & data, algebraic reasoning, phonics, fluency, and basic science principles.

Even before it was officially eliminated from the curriculum, cursive instruction was declining, but with change, there is resistance. After its relevance was questioned, a growing movement of traditionalists started grumbling, reluctant to replace a cornerstone of elementary education with keyboard-only composition. Then parents got involved, arguing, “I had to learn it, so my kid should, too,” and they launched campaigns at school board meetings and on social media to preserve the dying art. 

Is there legitimate substance to their argument, or is it merely nostalgic rumination? 

It is indisputable that the time it takes for students to learn how to pen a legible cursive sentence—the painstaking loops and curls, the humps and dips, the precise slant of the upper and lowercase letters—is not worth the effort, if its sole purpose is to produce a signature. After all, cursive writing uses a completely different-looking alphabet, and kids need visual aids to demonstrate its form, plus other materials, like special paper with double wide lines and husky pencils and patience. After children learn the basics, they need hours of practice, they need correction, they need feedback—and for what? So they can revert to printing once they complete fourth grade and write all future assignments on a Chromebook? 

By these measures, learning a second script seems unnecessary and impractical, but those in favor of preserving cursive believe there is more merit in the means than in the end. Educators behind the campaign to save cursive cite the benefits of the process—aside from the final product. Here is what they found: 

  • More than just a signature, cursive gives kids a medium through which to develop their own stamp of identity, like a creative outlet.
  • Cursive hones fine motor skills and spatial awareness. The sensory motor planning of putting pencil to paper to form each letter in a contiguous fluid motion, builds the neural foundation for dozens of other tasks, such as tying a shoe without looking at it, copying something from the board, and recalling text passages.
  • Using cursive writing forces a person’s brain to slow down, allowing for deeper thoughts, more expansive word choices, and increased imagination. (These also happen to be essential qualities of a good writer.) 
  • Writing words in cursive improves spelling by establishing a more sophisticated connection in the brain than the simple letter recognition of typing on a keyboard. The more senses involved in learning, the faster the brain makes a neuropathway.
  • Cursive boosts reading skills in ways printing and keyboarding cannot. It helps early readers’ brains organize words, because in script words exist as entities, rather than individual letters in a row. Writing in cursive reinforces the left to right flow, while enlisting hand-eye coordination to remember letter patterns, like “sh,” “ch,” or any vowel combinations. 
  • Cursive teaches kids to be visually flexible, meaning they learn to allow for slight variations when reading handwritten text. The brain is extraordinarily adaptable and can accommodate for differences in, say, my handwriting compared to another teacher’s, but it must be trained to do so. Cursive interpretation—even among fellow classmates—is excellent practice. Visual flexibility is essential to making split-second decisions, like when you’re driving or reading signs.
  • Students who learn cursive take pride in their handwriting. Given the effort, practice, and skill involved, it automatically builds confidence. Kids who learn to master the cursive alphabet will always be able to use it—perhaps to write the teacher who taught it to them a thank-you note.

As of 2013, seven states (California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Utah) elected to reinstate cursive writing as a permanent part of their elementary school curriculum, but its fate is far from secure. Today’s world is digitally oriented and there is simply no spare instructional time in a typical school day to teach penmanship. If writing isn’t reinforced with rote practice, it can’t be assimilated into a usable skill. Unfortunately, like other casualties to academic progress, we won’t be able to assess the full impact of its absence until it’s too late.

As for my daughter, while her block-printing lacks finesse and barely qualifies as a legal signature, she can implement algorithms into computer programming language and already types faster than I do. Progress is interpretive.

Michelle Riddell lives with her family in rural mid-Michigan, where she writes, edits, and is a substitute teacher. Her hobbies include, finding the good in any situation, convincing her daughter to try different foods, and digital humor. Connect with her onTwitter or Facebook.

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