Should We Still Teach Cursive Writing?

48

The much publicized Common Core standards don’t require the teaching of cursive handwriting in elementary schools and, like so much else about the Common Core, this makes a lot of people unhappy. I’ll keep my opinion on the Common Core to myself (at least for now), but this seems like a good place to talk about the relative importance of teaching script.

I think I understand the arguments on both sides. Pro-cursive folks talk about aesthetics and connection with the past. They also point to the benefits of the fine motor skills developed by cursive writing  instruction. Apparently, brain researchers have found that cursive writing stimulates more of the brain than keyboarding or even printing.

The Pro-Cursive Position

But I can’t help feeling that the main reason folks want cursive to remain in the curriculum is little more than a deep-rooted resistance to change. We all learned to write in cursive. For some of us (e.g., yours truly), it was a  grueling experience. Why should today’s kids get out of it? It just seems like more lowering of expectations — of requiring less of students when we should be asking more.

The following comment on a blog is fairly typical:

… what does cursive teach us?  One neatness, pride of ownership, discipline and motor skills … works well when the power is off 24 hours and you don’t have a  key board, computer, or phone … IE. you can write your love a love letter … or poem.

… If you can not write cursive, you can not read cursive … the Bills of rights [sic]…, Constitution, and Declaration all become greek [sic]… or any of the original, unedited notes of our history and founding … dumbing down of youth…stupid is as stupid does.

I don’t relate to the writer’s passion, and I’m unconvinced by his argument. Neatness? I worked hard at cursive, but my printing has always been far more legible. Why can’t neatness be learned by printing. And we’re not talking about neatness generally. Just neat handwriting. It sounds a little like, “We need to teach handwriting so we can teach neat handwriting!”

Motor skills? That’s always an odd one to me. People defend video games with the same argument. I never bought that one. Video game playing teaches motor skills that apply to…playing video games. I don’t see how learning cursive is any different. Doesn’t learning to print teach fine motor skills just as well?

Discipline can obviously be taught through any subject. If we want to teach discipline for discpline’s sake, there are a thousand completely useless options. We can make them separate lentils into piles (fine motor skills too!).

The whole “works with the power off” argument makes no sense. No one is suggesting we eliminate pencil and paper, just cursive writing. Printing equally requires no electricity. And I can print my love a letter or poem perfectly well.

The idea that we’ll lose the ability to comprehend the founding documents — even that individual students will find them illegible — is a bit of a stretch, no? Those documents have been transcribed into print thousands of times. I’ve got a pocket Constitution — in print — that I refer to often. Anyway, it’s far easier to read cursive than write in it. And if a student found it important to read the original, it would take just a little effort to learn how to decipher it.

I don’t see this as an attempt to further “dumb down” education. In fact, I think it’s a simple adjustment to the times. Thirty years ago, few of us had the need to learn keyboarding skills. Today they are vital. Cursive handwriting is not. Let’s make efforts to use teacher and student time wisely. Other than signatures, few people under 50 ever write in cursive once they leave elementary school. It simply seems like other things are more important and more valuable.

I’m Not Objective

I’m happy to reveal my biases on the matter, of course. First, I run an education business that requires students to compose entirely on keyboards. I don’t think it’s wise to eliminate handwriting in general — that would put us at the mercy of electronic technology — but I don’t see why we must teach students both print and cursive when keyboarding is easily the most practically useful motor skill in today’s world.

Second, I’ve always hated writing in cursive. I quit as soon as teachers stopped requiring it of me. My handwriting has always been a mess, even when I concentrate and take my time.

I don’t pretend to be objective, but I’m open to being persuaded (by arguments better than the commenter’s above).

The Origins of Cursive

The historical argument works against cursive instruction. Cursive originated as a means of reducing the number of times a writer had to lift his quill pen off the page. This reduced spatters and wear and tear on the fragile quills. In a world of sturdy, plastic ball-points, the only reasonable arguments for cursive are speed and artistry. Cursive writing is somewhat faster than printing. And for those with a graceful hand, script is more visually appealing.

Good points, but not enough to convince me that this increasingly outdated skill is worth the necessary time investment.

For the record, my wife and I homeschooled our kids, and we taught them cursive. But, like their dad, my daughters, in those rare instances when they put pen to paper rather than thumbs to phone keypads, write entirely in print.

*****

Please feel free to disagree with me in the reply section below. Oh, you can back me up too, if you like, but that’s not nearly as fun!

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  29. Sarah
    Sarah02-16-2014

    I am one of about two or three kids in my grade that writes in cursive. This has its pros and cons.

    Kids in my grade can almost never read my writing. They’ll look at it, and tell me “It’s so pretty. But what does it say?” I can’t decide if this is because they really can’t read cursive, or if they’re just too lazy to. This can be frustrating for me, especially when we’re revising essays in class. Sometimes I do write in print for just that purpose, but it’s sometimes just too much work; I’ve known how to write cursive since I was five, and writing in print is, for me at least, so much slower, and I always keep accidentally connecting the letters.

    Surprisingly, there are quite a few upsides to this. One is that other students can never copy off of my paper in class. (I usually finish taking notes or finishing classwork earlier than some of the other students, and most of the time when a classmate asks me for help doing something, they’re really just asking for the answers.) Another is that I’m always writing poetry in my notebook; I’m a bit paranoid and I don’t like people to see what I’ve written unless they’re my friend. The last upside I can think of is that when we hand tests or essays back in class, I can always tell which one is mine straightaway.

    Personally, I don’t think kids should have to be taught cursive, but knowing how to read it is useful. I know handwriting isn’t the most important thing in the world, but I’ve always had a great interest in calligraphy and penmanship. I view it as a king of art; I love writing with fountain pens and practicing different fonts, but I guess it really depends on the person. I have always been proud of my handwriting.

    Most kids my age have horrible signatures. I don’t mean messy or illegible, but it’s usually just their name whole name written neatly. I feel that since we still have to use cursive to sign important documents, we should at least be taught how to create a signature.

    I guess cursive is just one of those little things I enjoy in life. Not necessarily important or more useful than print, but kinda nice anyways.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-16-2014

      I appreciate your thoughtful perspective. You are a good writer, too.

  30. Amanda
    Amanda01-18-2014

    Personally I think whether we should teach handwriting should be left up to parents. If parents feel it is a useful skill to have then whether it is necessary or not seems irrelevant. For example, I send my daughter to a private school, at that school she learns a lot of subjects that have become almost obsolete in public schools around here (mostly due to funding issues) including art, handwriting, and music. But she also gets lessons in religion. I believe a lot of people would argue that religion is not necessary to be taught at school it is something that should be taught at home. Although that may be true, I find that all these subjects (and all the other subjects her school teaches) are completely worthwhile and valid. So really in the long run what someone else thinks is worthwhile, seems pointless when it comes to what a parent wants for their child.

    I can understand someone questioning why I would want my daughter to handwrite stuff, but really, for me when I’m not on a computer I write out a lot of things…in cursive. For me I have always been taught that print is for little kids, cursive is for adults, although it can be laborious to learn someone can learn to write in cursive just as quickly and neatly as they can in print. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised that most adults who say they only write in print, really have a combination of print and cursive.

  31. Kathleen
    Kathleen10-29-2013

    I don’t agree with not teaching children cursive writing. Children will not be able to sign their names or even read the Declaration of Independence, as well as other documents from the past. President Obama dropping National Education Standards does not surprise me. He really cannot make the correct decision regarding anything important. What does he care, his children are privately tutored.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-29-2013

      You don’t need public school instruction in cursive to sign your name nor do you need to know how to write in cursive to read cursive. The Declaration of Independence and other works are available in many forms that are not cursive.

      Nor does the President have much to do with this decision.

  32. Shana
    Shana06-29-2013

    Shana again! I was giving this some more thought after reading an article regarding the Zimmerman case where the girl didn’t know how to read cursive writing. And it made me think about the reasons I would want my children to learn cursive writing. And it dawned on me that if we stop teaching this to children, then eventually the ability to read it will fall by the wayside for most people. If my children didn’t learn how to read and write in cursive, then it’s entirely possible that they, or their children after them, most likely, would never be able to understand or read the books or journals that I’ve written, or the letters that I inherited from my grandmother that she used to write to her sister, and that her sister used to write back, or the cards I’ve saved from my mother.

    Maybe it would take more than one generation but I don’t believe it would take many. Are we really going to want to take our family histories to specialists to read them for us? Are we going to want to take field trips to Washington DC and look at historical documents in the Smithsonian and not be able to understand them, but instead have to read a translation posted next to it? That seems tragic to me. That seems terribly sad, and I hope I don’t see it in my family, in my lifetime. One day when I’m dead and gone I want my grandchildren to be able to open my prayer book and read the things that I wrote. I want to be able to communicate with my children or grandchildren without dumbing down my own skills because they haven’t been taught to understand them. Not teaching children how to write in cursive means the children will eventually stop knowing how to read in cursive, this poor girl in the Zimmerman case is the perfect example. And whether our children choose to write cursive once they’ve learned it, I think our grandchildren or great-grandchildren not understanding how to read cursive would truly be the biggest tragedy. And I do believe that would eventually happen.

  33. Cj
    Cj06-29-2013

    I agree to some extent that it not necessary to learn cursive because we can type. Actually, I prefer typing or writing in print because I’m in the medical field and it takes me forever to decipher a doctor’s/nurse’s horrible handwriting when I read reports…

    Yet, I do also see a need for it and why school age children should learn it.

    Typing requires a flat surface and two hands to fully make use of a keyboard. It’s good for people with a desk job, bad if they are are constantly on their feet and need a free hand to do things. Texting might work, but most times you need to look at a screen in order to type efficiently. Writing works well for those who have to quickly jot down notes. Cursive just makes writing more efficient. That is, if the person is good at it. I prefer to print because I suck at cursive.

    Another reason, our handwriting defines us. Cursive adds to that personal touch to hand written letters or signatures. There is a certain uniqueness that comes from from cursive than print. That’s the reason why we use cursive for signatures. I don’t think no one can mimic my chicken scratching because it’s too damn sloppy. Yet, people can can easily forge my print writing. Likewise, people can copy what I type and claim it as their own. It takes some skill to really forge others handwriting. Cursive ups the ante in difficulty. I suppose, if we need to sign important documents in the future we will probably use finger prints, photos, or DNA, but for now we have to rely on our John Hancock to sign those important papers.

    So why should kids learn cursive? School age kids are sponges and absorb so much at that age. It’s best time to teach children language skills. Writing is a language skill. We went through writing drills as children, but it stuck in our brains. Eventually, writing became second nature to us. We learn how to print and how to read print, likewise we learn how to “cursive” and how to read cursive. I would say cursive is an extension of our writing language. As I said before, we really haven’t fully transitioned to digital types of signatures, so at the moment kids still need to learn it. Eventually it will be an optional class (like learning calligraphy or learning short hand).

    Then again, children have an easier time learning a foreign language compared to adults. Not saying that adults cannot learn a new language, but it takes longer for them to become more proficient. I’m trying to learn Japanese in my 30′s and having a difficult time learning all the different characters. I think stopping cursive classes now would be a mistake because we still rely on handwriting. It’s too weird for me to say, I have met people in their 20′s who cannot read cursive. Scary, huh?

  34. Shana
    Shana05-22-2013

    I’m a big fan of continuing to teach cursive. While no, there is no true technical reason it’s necessary, I am the direct opposite of many people who claim that their cursive is terrible and their printing is fine. I am artistic by nature, and since my young teenage years, I’ve been much happier with my cursive than I have ever been with my printing. Even as an adult, though I’ve modified my printing to something resembling architectural writing (after learning it in design classes) so that I’m not as unhappy with it, I take great pride in my cursive – it’s always been something that made me very happy about myself. I don’t believe it’s that much of a time investment, and since studies have indicated that it’s more intellectually stimulating to learn, what’s the harm? We teach children art and music (even if they’re terrible at it), and make them play sports (even if they’re terrible at them). None of these are necessary skills (I know athletics/gym class is important for health reasons, but we could just as easily have children doing sit ups and laps every day, instead of teaching them sports). The thing is, if we abandon it – if we eschew teaching it altogether, it takes away the choice. Most parents won’t teach it in a child’s spare time, and it will eventually disappear. And then the children with atrocious printing (like myself) but who might have possessed beautiful cursive won’t ever have access to that option. They won’t have that small thing to be proud of. I have an aunt who isn’t proud of very much about herself, but she’s always had such beautiful handwriting (in fact, mine is similar to hers, though hers is a bit lighter and thinner, while mine is a bit bolder), and she gets many compliments on it. I’m sure that feels good to her – I know it always makes a little part of me very happy when someone compliments my handwriting. It’s a beautiful part of our history that I just don’t see the need to give up. Maybe it’s more of an art form than anything at this point… but just what’s wrong with that?

  35. Roberta Gallant
    Roberta Gallant05-15-2013

    Yes, all of the schools in the United States should still teach cursive
    so that their students can learn how to handwrite. The state and federal
    ought not to cut cursive from the schools’ curriculum.

  36. Frederic Durbin
    Frederic Durbin05-01-2013

    I remember reading an article about a study done: according to this study (which, alas, I cannot cite, but it was respectable), there is no difference in speed between cursive writing and printing. I believe this, because as a college student, I was a lightning-fast note-taker, and I took notes in printing. That was my default, go-to form of handwriting. I think it’s good for people to be able to read cursive, but whether they can produce it or not, whatevs. I agree with you, Brian, that the particular form or vehicle is not as important as the act of writing itself–clear communication. Writers will find a way!

  37. Jos Harvey
    Jos Harvey05-01-2013

    The only thing, I think, that script writing is useful for (and I say SCRIPT instead of CURSIVE because cursive is a specific type of script), is for speed and less cramping. You can write without lifting the pen/pencil off the paper faster than lifting it after each letter, and it stresses muscles less.

    Now, as to the use of “script” instead of “cursive” — cursive is a bad form of script. It’s much more loopy than other forms of script, it is unnecessarily ornate, and as someone who was taught generic script as a child in England, and then moved to America and was forced to learn the cursive variant, it’s an absolute pain. The captial J looks like a G, the lowercase r looks like an n, and all those pointless loops! Really, all you need to do is join up your letters, and you’re writing a pretty decent script style; all the flourishes are pointless, and for students who lack artistic ability, positively aggravating and pointless. When done well, it’s beautiful, yes, but most of the time it isn’t. And to do it well, you have to do it SLOW, useless for note-taking and timed writings, which most public school still require to be done by hand. Print is faster than legible cursive; script forms other than cursive are faster than printing, and when you’re taking notes from a teacher or a slide, simultaneous speed and legibility are of the essence.

    So, in short, teach script, BUT NOT THE CURSIVE VARIANT.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko05-01-2013

      Interesting, Jos. I wasn’t aware of the distinction between cursive and script. I’m still not convinced it’s important enough a skill to be required in schools. But your perspective is enlightening. Thanks.

  38. Karen
    Karen05-01-2013

    I took my son to open a checking account the other day. When he wanted to write a check to take money out, he was instructed to write the amount in cursive, as well as sign in cursive. The lady at the bank told him to do it that way. My son slowly completed the task, because he never has reason to practice his cursive.

  39. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko04-30-2013

    Interesting perspective, Amber. Thanks for sharing. I think it’s the other way around though. If we stop teaching it, it will eventually no longer be required. We only require cursive signatures because we have always required cursive signatures. That’s not a strong reason in my mind.

    It seems silly that the paragraph had to be written in cursive. :)

    I agree though, that it’s not a hill to die on.

  40. Saved Girl/ Amber
    Saved Girl/ Amber04-29-2013

    Well, I personally think that cursive is a great form of writing when done well and that it should be taught to kids. But then, that is just my opinion and I wouldn’t make it a hill to die on.

    I, sadly, inherited my dad’s handwriting and my cursive looks like chicken scratch. So I seldom write in cursive. I would like, though, to eventually spend some time and learn to write well in cursive. I fear that that is a mistake most parents make when they teach cursive. They only teach the basics and while the kids can write in it, it doesn’t look good at all. If you are going to teach cursive, then teach it all the way so it is legible and the kids can be proud of their cursive, not ashamed.

    I do have one real point of disagreement with you, where I would point to as evidence that cursive should still be taught to kids. I think that before we stop teaching cursive, we should completely stop using it. Cursive signatures are still required for drivers licenses, passports, or official documents. If kids aren’t taught how to write this way, then should we really expect them to be able to do it for these important things? Case in point, last year I took the SAT exam. I had to take it at a local high school and thus all the kids in the classroom were public-schoolers, while I was a home-schooler. Now, instead of just signing your name to some agreement that you won’t cheat or tell anyone about the test question, etc. everyone had to copy the entire paragraph and then sign it. And the whole paragraph had to be written in cursive. I simply picked up my pencil, copied and signed. When I looked up, I was quite surprised and amused to find that all the kids looked really confused. The guy administering the test was up at the whiteboard, very clumsily trying to explain what cursive is (it’s that fancy writing you see, just connect your letters, etc.).

    So, if you don’t want cursive around, I think you should start by eliminating it from use in official settings before eliminating it as a school requirement. Otherwise, the poor kids are penalized.

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