George Lucas Educational Foundation
Illustration showing a page of cursive with a typewriter, computer, and smartphone

What We Lose With the Decline of Cursive

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

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.

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.

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?

Filed Under
About the Author
Share This Story
  • read later Bookmark

Comments (28) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (28) Sign in or register to comment

Apostolos Vranas's picture
Apostolos Vranas
A Teaching Experience of 25+ years

Teach cursive first and then keying in ... Of course, what with voice activation and voice dictation, even keying may go down the drain in the near future. But, I think - in the John Wyndham line of thought - that hadnwriting should be considered a fundamental skill!

Steve Trudeau's picture

As one who takes pride in their handwriting, I love the expressive quality of handwriting that further communicates what typed letter forms cannot. I worry about developmental gaps created from our reliance on computers to "write" for us. I think that more research needs to be done on how learning is affected by those who are taught cursive and those that are not.

Liz Wisniewski's picture

I have spent 10 years teaching third and fourth grade. Cursive teaching takes up a good chunk of instructional time. Putting cursive back into the curriculum is a matter of priorities.

The CCS is a very demanding set of standards supported by an ever increasing complex curriculum. If cursive comes back in, something else will fall off the plate - reading, writing, math? We hardly do social studies anymore. If something is to come back into the curriculum - I vote for SS, rather than cursive. There is only so much time in the day.

I wonder if anyone understands that time is not infinite during the school day?

Yara's picture

I think Cursive writing is beneficial for students to see in the classroom. Even though, cursive writing is declining. According to a Washington post article 75% of 2nd and 3rd grade Teachers are still including cursive writing in the curriculum. Therefore, I do not mind Teachers keeping cursive writing as a topic in their curriculum. However, I would not make cursive writing a huge component of the curriculum in future years.

Calvin Heyward's picture

I remember some years ago visiting the iconic NYC library (the one with the lions out front), and on display were original drafts of the Declaration of Independence. It sadden me to know how many students wouldn't be able to read it as it was written.

Pearl's picture

Interesting perspective; do you think this is also like what we lose by reading electronic books/newspapers instead of hard copies?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Liz, I totally understand where you are coming from about the time. In my experience, integration is the key to unlocking time in the school day. When my students can learn science, writing, social skills, social studies, reading and even math during our daily reading block, they are not only fully engaging in learning to read but they are learning in many other different subjects. I believe THIS is how we unlock time for cursive, more recess, longer lunches and movement breaks. My school meets the CCSS and yet over the last few years we have increased time spent on recess, lunch, movement breaks and still teach cursive. We still have PE twice a week, music, art, library/media time once a week and even have Spanish K-6 3 days a week for 30 minutes. It does take more work to create these integrated units but doing so makes our time spent on learning SO MUCH more effective. More time doesn't' equal more learning. In fact it sometimes means less attention and focus. I believe cursive is still valuable and doesn't need to go away if administrators and leaders will provide educators the time and tools to fully integrate their curriculum. For example, during math we learn about data using information on bears (a science unit we are doing this month as well.) So if I can teach my students about a bear's diet during math and still teach the necessary math skills it frees up time later in the day for other science work or even other subject areas. Another example from last week is when we were doing some non-fiction comprehension work and during reading my students learned about mammals. Today when we were going to learn about mammals during science we instead could focus on animal adaptations. Later this week instead of a science lesson we will do extra writing.

Marilyn Yung's picture
Marilyn Yung
Middle School Language Arts Teacher

Cursive isn't going away. I include a bit of cursive writing like this: as they enter the room, students copy an inspirational Brainy Quote from the Smartboard onto notebook paper. It takes only five minutes, sometimes sparks some interesting conversations (about the quote or our cursive), and the kids know that I LOVE to show off their signatures on a bulletin board. They are awesome kids and are developing beautiful signatures. I encourage flowers, hearts, stars, etc. as dots over their i's. That's what makes cursive fun!

Kay Rutledge's picture

Please do not give up teaching cursive writing. I think it is very important for people to learn Printing and cursive why should we give up one of the two since we have been teaching it for years without a problem.

Lea's picture

I was taught "print" and "write". I don't recall "writing" being referred to as "cursive" until I began substitute teaching in the last 9 years. I was astonished when children saw my preferred method was cursive: "you write cursive so fast", especially when I told them "writing" was faster than "printing". My strongest memories of school was learning to write both styles, then typing (keyboard) later in HS. Not "hunt and peck" but by "touch", and taught to see and type whole words not letters, then sentences without thought of letters. Subsequently, I believe this combination of communicating taught comprehension. I remember practicing writing my signature (name), designing the capital letters and perfecting legibility while personalizing it. My signature was "me". I was and remain proud of handwriting (wish my printing was better (smiling)) since THAT method is used predominately now, especially in the classroom. I am horrified to see teachers telling students to create a original "signature" that is illegible, PHONICS: is the source of spelling and pronunciation skills in my opinion. Well, enough of my soapbox for now. There is value in "old school".

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.