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Illustration showing a page of cursive with a typewriter, computer, and smartphone
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What We Lose With the Decline of Cursive

Technology is gradually replacing cursive instruction—but have we taken stock of what we’re losing?

Should cursive writing still be taught in our schools? The old debate is back with a vengeance as schools shift resources from the intricate, painstakingly rendered script to keyboard skills.

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The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 42 states and the District of Columbia, call for handwriting instruction in kindergarten and first grade only, and teaching in keyboard skills after that. The standards don’t mention cursive. But 14 states require cursive instruction, and the skill inspires fierce loyalty, with some going so far as to argue that the founding fathers would disapprove of our abandonment of the script—students must learn cursive in order to decipher the intent of the original Constitution, for example—and others suggesting that our very identities are compromised when we can’t create identifiable signatures.

As Alabama state Rep. Dickie Drake, who sponsored a 2016 bill requiring cursive instruction in schools, put it, “I think your cursive writing identifies you as much as your physical features do.”

That bill was signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley, undoubtedly in a flourish of cursive, and went into effect in May 2016. But it was just one salvo in an old battle that is picking up a new head of steam. In the fall, for example, New York City’s public schools—“the country’s largest school district, with 1.1 million students—encouraged teaching cursive to elementary school students.” And media outlets from The Economist and PBS NewsHour to The Huffington Post continue to write about the revival of cursive, as parents, teachers, and researchers have publicly—and volubly—questioned the wisdom of killing it off.

Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, with suggested changes by Ben Franklin
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, with suggested changes by Ben Franklin
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, with suggested changes by Ben Franklin. Does the decline of cursive threaten to sever our ties with the past?

Cursive was historically associated with good character and virtue—it was widely taught in the 19th century as “a Christian ideal... occasionally credited with disciplining the mind.” But that was the high point, and the use of cursive declined throughout the 20th century as people shifted to typewriters—the first mass-market typewriter was the Signet, produced in the 1930s by Royal—and then to rudimentary computers and now, of course, to powerful smartphones. Instruction in cursive has been declining since the 1970s, and many teacher education programs don’t address handwriting instruction, thereby isolating the skill from its most natural advocates. But removing cursive from school curricula is part of an ongoing evolution, according to Anne Trubek, author of the 2016 book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. New modes of communication and sense making have come and gone, she says, and “proclaiming the virtuousness of one way of forming a ‘j’ over others is a trope that occurs throughout handwriting’s history.”

Is it all just nostalgia, then? Are parents and teachers who are caught up in the controversy merely reliving old glories and trying to resurrect a useless relic? Is the battle over the future of cursive, in other words, really all about the past?

Proponents of the script clearly don’t think so. In the case of cursive—and more broadly, handwriting in general—there’s plenty of evidence of cognitive and academic benefits. Brain scans reveal neural circuitry lighting up when young children first print letters and then read them. The same effect is not apparent when the letters are typed or traced. Intriguingly, according to reporting in The New York Times, “block printing, cursive, and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns,” implying a deep, underlying sensitivity in the brain to even minor changes in the way letters are rendered on the page. When reading and writing, we appear to be hardwired for versatility.

I think your cursive writing identifies you as much as your physical features do.

Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, confirms that point, arguing that it’s not a case of either/or—there are good reasons to teach handwriting, cursive, and keyboard skills. “In one recent study, she and her coauthors reported that cursive in particular had measurable positive effects on older children’s spelling and composition skills”—because cursive is faster than print (though the speed argument is itself a disputed point). And there is some evidence that cursive helps students with dyslexia learn to read and write because it “integrates hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and other brain and memory functions.” Other studies broaden the benefits to handwriting generally while suggesting limitations to computer-based literacy, concluding that “teaching handwriting improves students’ composition, reading comprehension, brain function, and motor skills,” and that students who take notes by hand instead of on a laptop process the information better.

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If these findings are accurate, they form a powerful argument for continuing to teach handwriting, though not necessarily cursive. But digital technology has clearly emerged as a powerful democratizing force, knocking down barriers to access for students with special needs. If some studies show that cursive helps dyslexic students learn to read, for example, others—like a study from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity—conclude that students with dyslexia will be “big winners” from a switch to keyboarding because that skill helps them improve on the volume of words used, written clarity, spelling, and editing. And there’s another benefit, according to Steve Graham, an education professor who has studied writing instruction for three decades: When “teachers rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in terms of legibility, they assign higher grades to neatly written versions of the paper.” Keyboards render that deeply unfair bias moot.

The continued pace of technological change doesn’t bode well for the future of handwriting—the assault on all forms of manual writing is likely to continue. Artificial intelligence and language recognition are rapidly growing fields, putting powerful, marvelously simple communication tools in the hands of millions of consumers. But given all of the compelling research on handwriting, and the deep cultural and historical meaning of the practice, we should ask whether the Common Core has abandoned the teaching of handwriting and cursive too hastily. As Anne Trubek notes in her book, “We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable.” So the question remains: What precisely are we losing—and what is it worth?

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Crystal's picture

Well-written article covering a multifaceted topic.

I am strongly in favor of handwriting instruction, both print & cursive. The development of the fine motor skills IS important as is the use of multiple senses in learning & processing information. 1st semester, my 6th graders took guided notes from PPTS. 2nd semester, I decided to start writing notes & having students copy them. After the 1st day, I asked which they preferred. I expected the guided notes to be the choice, but surprisingly & overwhelmingly, 98% of students chose handwritten notes!!! 4 weeks into the change, I asked again. Same results!!! Their reasons: It slows ME down, it allows them to think about material. My observation: Behavior during instruction is better, questions & comments are better, engagement of all students is better!!!

One point not addressed in the article is the GAP created between generations / groups who do know/use cursive & those who don't. It's not just about the Founding Documents--it's about letters, cards, journals, inscriptions, etc. left behind by older generations. It's about family photos with names & dates discovered in a old box in the attic. It's about a grandparent who sends a birthday card with a handwritten note to a child who can't read it. If what people of previous generations have WRITTEN DOWN doesn't matter, then why have researchers spent hundreds of years analyzing hieroglyphics, searching for stones with writings, reading old family documents, census results, legal documents, journals, etc.?

Furthermore, It's about a teacher who writes notes on the board or on a paper that students can't read. (The latter has happened to me with my 6th grade students this year & 11th grade students last year!) It's about group (& individual) projects/activities in which students MUST handwrite: the writing task cannot be handled by all members in a group or class; moreover, those who can't READ the handwriting cannot be sure what was written to be correct or representative of their point of view!

It's about what happens when the technology fails!

It's about whole groups of Americans whose oppression was punctuated by denial of the knowledge to read and write, who signed their names with a generic & humiliating X! No leader, no royalty, no ruler--no one esteemed to be valuable in this world--does not have a distinct signature.

It's about a unique signature that significantly represents one individual's consent, support, acknowledgment, and even presence in this world.

Ultimately, it's about humanity.

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Verdette Wilkins's picture

It's a surprise to learn that a number of youth have not been exposed or mastered the art form of cursive handwriting. The form reveals more than an individual's ability to script, it can give insight into ones personality. I think it's a fundamental, creative form of self expression.

Bangla's picture

We need to be exposing our students to skills and mindsets that will help them to manage well in a future that will be totally different to the present and harking to the past is unlikely to assist with this. As an educator of over 40 years, the changes I have seen in the the world have been inconceivable. Unfortunately, in many aspects educational thinking has not kept pace with other areas. I learnt to write in cursive but do I use it or need it now, definitely not! Already we have technology that can record and write what people say and this no doubt will improve and be more widely used in a short space of time so why hark back to something that is less and less necessary. There are many other ways to develop fine motor skills and I suggest educators would be better to focus on a variety of activities to aid in this domain. While there should continue to be opportunities for students to write, this can be done without resorting to handwriting from the dark ages. I wonder how many adults write using pen and paper these days. Not many that I come across!

ellerphant's picture

Is cursive becoming the equivalent to learning to drive a stick shift car? We don't need either much anymore but those with the skill are proud to have it.

Todd Crane's picture

Students should learn how to produce legible handwriting. Teaching cursive specifically seems like a less effective choice for class time compared to several other options. Concerns about being able to read the Constitution are odd appeals more concerned with patriotism than education. The social fabric survived moving on from teaching Latin, typewriting skills, shorthand notation, logarithm tables, slide rulers, etc. It will survive moving away from teaching cursive as well. Again, focusing on legible and efficient writing is appropriate. Cursive specifically? Not necessary.

Calvin Heyward's picture

As a former Language Arts teacher, and Art teacher, I view cursive writing as an art form in and of itself. Many here have argued it's a skill of the past, a relic of education's yesteryears, like telling time with a clock.

The only real reason cursive isn't taught is because it can't be quantified on state common core tests, and teaching it takes up "valuable time" in preparation of said tests. If there was a "growth score" that test makers could attach to cursive writing and ergo more books they could manufacture and sell, we'd be teaching cursive from K-12.

Alas, cursive writing is allowed to die like any other skill we can't attach a number to.

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Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Calvin, you wrote an eloquent, impassioned argument that not only defends the intrinsic advantages of cursive but advocates for a multitude of immeasurable yet indispensable aspects of an inspired, artistic, expansive education.

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Tom Berger's picture
Tom Berger
Executive Editor

You raise some very good points, rltysonm. One point that I came across in my research that didn't make it into the article is that people can learn to read cursive fairly quickly, without having to learn to write it--an idea I had not considered previously.

I'd add that I would like my own kids to learn cursive, even though I stopped using it as soon as I got to college.

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Cynthia Faisst's picture
Cynthia Faisst
Suzuki Violin teacher in Orange County, CA

It is Script that is about to lose its usefulness and become obsolete. Embraced when the printing press arrived, this disconnected expression of language allowed printers to make minute edits in their printed pages without throwing out the entire plate. Edits which would have cost Benjamin a fortune. Now that the world is digital, fiber-optic, screen touch and mobile, editing a page with a keyboard is swiftly what is becoming obsolete. We will be using our cursive on new surfaces perhaps even writing in the air with our devices.

Imagine how it will help children to write with their whole bodies without being inhibited by the use of paper. Have you seen deaf people sign? Written language will return to the dance and rhythm from which it originated.

Give me a PC or device that can convert everything I am obligated to read, to cursive, especially, if it requires effort. I would read more if it was all in cursive. All of you complain bitterly that people don't read for pleasure anymore. Script is so hard on the eyes and probably the brain. Putting it in italics is not enough to take the hard edges off of it or give it connection. Let's reunite our words and our thoughts again.

Has anyone asked the Japanese if they prefer hiragana over katakana? Hiragana is much more akin to our cursive. It flows on the page as cursive. Katakana is more angular and akin to script. It forces the eyes to stop like signage. That is the other thing that Script was designed for, advertising and storefront signages. When will we stop doing that to our brains with our devices? I want to read in comfort again.

There are a few places in the world where one must do their research and take notes without the aid of technology. That moment when we are unplugged we will suddenly realize the versatility of being able to write our own notes and communicate by hand. If struck by a disaster that renders our gadgets useless suddenly the people with this time tested skill will be invaluable.

I think also we will never quite lose the desire to take our notes with the personal expression that cursive offers even if we write it into our devices. Even the future of our devices is headed toward accommodating our personal expressions. Script may take a hike but Cursive is here to stay. Its curves are in our DNA even
if we keep finding new devices to do it on.

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