The Death of Cursive

Should schools continue to teach handwriting in our digital world?


Over the past two decades, there has been a steadily declining focus on teaching handwriting, especially cursive. The increasing emphasis on both technology and Common Core standards has pushed handwriting instruction down in importance, to the point where some schools do not teach it at all.

In an effort to change this, 14 states have passed laws requiring that cursive be taught as part of the curriculum. Here in Rhode Island, there is no state mandate on cursive handwriting; that decision is left to the districts. While the Providence Public School Department does not require that schools teach cursive because it is not in the Common Core State Standards, some elementary schools choose to use literacy resources that include it.

Why does it matter? Education experts say there are several reasons why teaching cursive handwriting may be beneficial to children. Dr. William Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, writes, “Cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual and tactile information, and fine motor dexterity.” Because multiple areas of the brain are involved when a person writes in cursive, the person is more likely to learn and remember the material.

In fact, multiple studies have shown that, when we write down information by hand versus typing it on the computer, there is a greater chance that we’ll retain that information. This is true for people of all ages, not just young children. Researchers found that, even if college students had a week to study the material, laptop note-takers did worse on the test than their longhand note-taking peers. While typing may be a fast and efficient method of writing, that very automaticity may detract from the learning experience.

There is also is a strong positive correlation between the quality of one’s handwriting and the quality of the writing itself. “Writing is the way we learn what we’re thinking,” says Virginia Berninger, a professor of Educational Psychology who studies the effect of handwriting on the human brain. Her research has shown that children who write by hand not only produce words more quickly than those using computers, but also express more numerous ideas. She believes that cursive is superior to print because it allows students’ ideas to flow more quickly onto the page.

For students who learn differently than the general population, cursive handwriting may be even more important. Writing in cursive may help students learn to identify letters more easily, since the variations can help students understand that a letter can be represented in many ways. Students diagnosed with developmental dysgraphia (motor control difficulties in forming letters) can show improvement when writing in cursive, which may help with the prevention of reversal and inversion of letters.

Other arguments for teaching cursive are more practical. Students who have not learned cursive have no personal signatures – just their printed names, which are less likely to be unique. If our children are ever going to use primary sources – old letters, family recipes, even the Declaration of Independence – they will need to be able to read cursive. This ability to read cursive is one of the reasons that Wheeler School cites for teaching the skill in the third grade.

Moses Brown School begins teaching cursive in the middle of second grade and continues that instruction through fourth grade, while simultaneously teaching keyboarding through their technology curriculum. Karen van Tienhoven, Lower School Language Arts Coordinator, explains: “For some students, writing in cursive is easier and faster. Often students who have reversals in print have no issues when writing in cursive. Research shows that most people use a hybrid of cursive and print when writing. So, we believe in introducing the students to print and cursive.”

Most of us remember having penmanship classes when we were in elementary school. You may also remember how proud you were when you could finally sign your own name in cursive. And this motivation may be the most compelling reason to teach cursive: if children want to write, we’ve already succeeded. We should teach children multiple ways to write – Dr. Berninger calls it teaching kids to be “multilingual by hand” – so that they will be proficient in whatever modality they choose.

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