Sophomore Andrew Forbes of Nashville, Tennessee, used cursive everyday in elementary school, from third grade through eighth grade. He was required to write out all his papers, worksheets, and notes in the flowing line of slanted script. He finds cursive so much faster and easier than printing, he still uses it daily in high school.
But he gets the feeling he's alone. “Everybody uses print. Out of all my friends, there is maybe one person who, I think, uses cursive. When they [my friends] saw that I use cursive, they were very surprised.”
Forbes might be one of the last holdouts. The decline in teaching cursive handwriting, the rise of the keyboard, and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards that do not require children to know cursive has the New York Times asking, “Is Cursive Dead?” Passionate advocates claim that cursive is a cultural tradition with cognitive and academic benefits that must be preserved, while some teachers and handwriting experts say the decline of cursive is natural, and it should be allowed to morph into a print/cursive hybrid, or bow out altogether.
Handwriting expert and founder of the World Handwriting Contest Kate Gladstone opined in the Times that handwriting is important, but it doesn’t matter whether the handwriting is cursive. “In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks,” she writes. “Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?”
Research suggests a strong connection between handwriting and brain development -- not only in the development of fine motor skills, but also in how children learn. In one study conducted by psychologist and cognitive scientist Karin Harman James at Indiana University, children who printed letters instead of just seeing and saying them showed “adult” brain activity; in another, led by educational psychologist Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington, second, fourth and sixth grade students wrote better sentences, wrote more and faster when using a pen and paper as opposed to a keyboard.
But is there a benefit, a definitive connection between the connected loops of cursive and improved function of the brain? James’s preliminary research on the benefits of using cursive exclusively shows promising findings: in one study, college students remembered information better when they copied a paragraph in cursive compared to both printing and typing. James emphasized, however, that the study of cursive is just beginning, and noted that “scientists have not determined the benefits of teaching or not teaching cursive.”
Kids are lacking in so many skills, says retired fourth-grade teacher Barbara Kuykendall, who taught cursive handwriting for twenty years in Evansville, Indiana, she’s glad the Common Core Standards no longer require students to learn cursive. “I used to teach cursive and am glad it's out of the curriculum now. It's a time issue. It just takes so much time to teach it and there are far more important things for kids to learn now.” She said it would be easy to teach kids to sign their name in cursive, then leave it at that. “If none of them know cursive, it wouldn’t be as big a deal to them as it is to us.”
And for children with developmental issues, not having the pressure of learning cursive can be a relief. Chicago mom and graphic designer Christina Kakavas’ five-year-old son Markos has dyspraxia, and works with a therapist on his fine motor skills. Markos has trouble shaping letters by hand. Kakavas discovered some iPad apps that let him trace letters with his finger or by using the trackpad on the laptop instead of holding a pencil, incorporating the best of both the digital and the handwriting worlds. “Initially, I didn't want Markos playing games or sitting on the computer or iPad. Then I realized using the mouse or trackpad [to shape letters] would allow him to improve his fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.”
Of course, there is more to cursive handwriting than the time it takes to teach it, or the cognitive benefits of using it. Cursive’s roots are deeply embedded in cultural significance: the Declaration of Independence was written in cursive; there is the overwhelming recognition of finding a letter written in a loved one’s unique handwriting. And beyond the logistical problem of future generations not being able to read cursive, is there a reason to learn cursive for no reason at all, besides doing it for its own sake?
Marjorie Martin teaches cursive in her second-grade class at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, even though she often wonders if it’s worth it. But she continues, because she believes there’s value in the process. “There aren't too many things like this for the general population of kids anymore,” she said. “No woodworking class, the endless sawing and sanding to make a coatrack, no knitting, the frustration of needing to pull out 5 rows when you see that you dropped a stitch. I think there is value in learning a skill that that takes patience, perseverance, and diligence to master. Then, there's also the end product to consider. We are creating a generation that won't know how to build a simple doghouse or replace a button. But shouldn't they be able to create a reasonably attractive handwritten note?”
Perhaps upcoming generations, equipped with ever-present handheld technology, think differently. Andrew Forbes says that, although he uses cursive for all his schoolwork (except for the final drafts of papers that must be typed), he would never think of handwriting a note to a friend. “If I’m just trying to let somebody know something, I’ll just text them, honestly. If I want to ask somebody, ‘Hey are you going to that thing?’ I’m not going to write a letter and send it to them. My phone lets me have connection a lot faster.”
Want to stay in touch?
Subscribe to receive weekly updates of MindShift stories every Sunday. You’ll also receive a carefully curated list of content from teacher-trusted sources.