Perspective | Teaching cursive is a waste of time

By Michelle Riddell
@MLRiddell

Last year, when my 6th grade daughter needed me to translate the Ladies’ Room sign on a bathroom door because it was written in cursive, I was surprised. I had noticed she printed her name and her homework, but I assumed she had learned the rhythmic, looping motions of the Palmer Method at some point in her elementary career. After looking into it, though, it turns out she hadn’t. My daughter never learned cursive because in 2009, specific handwriting goals had been omitted from the Common Core education standards. The amount of time spent teaching cursive writing, or whether it was taught at all, was at the discretion of the teacher.

As with the other changes brought on by the Common Core, the decision to replace cursive instruction with computer literacy was controversial. Implementing a national set of expectations for K-12 schools was divisive enough, but eliminating something as basic as cursive writing was downright polarizing. In my investigation, I came across so many hotly contested opinions, I decided to write about it.

I set out to present the pros and cons of learning cursive and remain neutral, but after researching both sides, I was decidedly pro-cursive. The benefits were overwhelming. Reading comprehension, spelling, thought development, fine-motor skills, and interpretive flexibility were all improved by cursive writing. The counterargument to teaching cursive was flimsy in comparison: a lack of time. The public school system was unwilling to invest classroom hours on something that didn’t affect its students’ future-readiness.

My essay, What Is the Argument in Favor of Teaching Cursive, was well-received by educators and parents who felt the same way I did. When it was published in April 2018, fourteen states had pending legislation that amended the Common Core, reinstating cursive proficiency, and it looked like more states would follow. Though my daughter would probably never master the art of penmanship, this was good news to those of us interested in preserving it.

Several months later, around the time the reversals to the English Language Arts Revised Code were scheduled to take effect in those fourteen states, I accepted a long-term substitute teaching position in a 3rd grade classroom, and my pro-cursive convictions were put to the test. Beginning the first day of school, I was responsible for lesson plans, materials, testing, grading, and the well-being of 24 eight-year-olds—in addition to teaching the grade-level material. Having never had my own classroom before, I was amazed by the amount of effort it took to execute a simple daily routine.

Every morning, I wrote our classroom agenda on the board, and every morning I looked for a spot to insert cursive writing. I had visions of my students scrolling their way through the alphabet, letter by letter, eventually perfecting their own signatures, but there were so many academic elements we needed to cover, every minute of the day was already accounted for. As it was now, we rarely checked off every item on the agenda before the dismissal bell rang. I told myself we’d get to it once things settled down.

As the school year progressed, the reality of educating an academically and socially diverse group of eight-year-olds set in, and my idealistic notions of cursive writing waned. The students in our classroom spanned such a gamut of development and learning styles, there was no way to imagine cursive proficiency without one-on-one instruction. Several students couldn’t print legibly—how would they possibly manage precise loops and curls? It wasn’t just that we didn’t have time to learn cursive, it was that when I prioritized the kids’ needs, learning how to write in cursive seemed ancillary. Despite what I believed a year ago, no amount of cursive writing instruction was going to bridge literacy gaps, resolve comprehension deficits, or bring a struggling student up to grade level. These concerns required specialized intervention.

By the end of the first quarter, I quit trying to fit cursive into our agenda, and I re-evaluated my objectives as a 3rd grade teacher. It was my job to impart information and develop skills using traditional teaching approaches, but I also had to incorporate technological resources and use various assessments to monitor progress. It was clear, when considering my own elementary school experience, the 20th-century education system was designed before we understood a child’s physiological brain function and the various environmental variables that affect learning.

There is ample evidence that learning to write by hand helps kids learn to read—a haptic, or touch-related, sense of letter shape translates the visual to the cognitive—but there is nothing conclusive about cursive being more beneficial in doing so than manuscript. At one point, cursive was thought to be faster, but if that were true, why do most adults abandon it in favor of printing, once leaving school? Given the effort required to learn it and the time it detracts from teaching more pertinent skills, the reasons to reject cursive handwriting as a formal part of the curriculum far outweigh the reasons to keep it. Though it served us well in the past, it is time to stop sentimentalizing its value and abandon the tradition.

To succeed in a global society, our schools must be competitive and our curriculum relevant. We need to allow our education system to change independent of politics and for its policies to be informed by scientific research—not public backlash. Reversions, like reinstating the cursive writing mandate or boycotting alternative math techniques, are rooted in nostalgia and bolstered by a sense of propriety. Our children face a digitized world, unimagined by 50-year-old doctrine. To insist they learn a skill they’ll never need, just because we did, is a colossal waste of time.

The future is already written on the wall—and it’s not in cursive.

Michelle Riddell lives in rural mid-Michigan with her husband, daughter, and dogs. She is finishing her second novel and plans to dedicate it to the class of third graders who listened intently while she workshopped it with them during story-time. Connect with Michelle on Facebook @ReaderWriterRunnerWife and Twitter @MLRiddell. 

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