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Sherrill Joseph Asks Cursive Writing, Yea or Nay?

Sherrill Joseph is the author of the Botanic Hill Detectives mystery series for children. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

“So, why are you torturing my son by teaching him cursive?”

That was the first question I, a staunch proponent of formal Zaner-Bloser cursive instruction, received from the frowning parent of one of my fifth graders at Back-to-School Night in September 2012.

Not exactly the auspicious start I hoped for that evening. But the question reveals the ongoing divide in America: Should students be taught cursive handwriting anymore?

After all, we do live in a predominantly digital age now. Keyboarding seems to reign supreme for composing, emailing, and texting. Some ask, “Who even picks up a pen or pencil anymore?” Some say, “Cursive writing is important and should be taught.” Others counter with, “Let it die.” Each side has its entrenched arguments.

Some Relevant Definitions

Handwriting is writing by hand, not by keyboarding or texting. Manuscript, also known as Printing, is the form of handwriting American children tend to learn first (Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 2) where upright letters are formed individually into words. Cursive is the form of handwriting children might learn next (Grades 2 or 3 through 5) where the letters connect in a nonstop, flowing manner to form words. Penmanship is the art or skill of good handwriting.

The Continuing Cursive Handwriting Debate

There are many Cursive Naysayers in this country. Two I found (nytimes.com) were Morgan Polikoff, USC assistant professor of education and a standards, assessment, and accountability researcher; and, Kate Gladstone, founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works. Their combined statements:

  • Let It Die. Cursive should not be mandated. We can communicate effectively via keyboarding or printing.
  • Cursive is Not in State Standards. If cursive is not in the state standards, it should not be taught.
  • The Standards Do Not Need Skills Added. State standards are full of the essential skills students need to succeed in reading and writing. Mandating cursive instruction undermines the strength of the standards.
  • Cursive is Outmoded. It should go the way of the abacus and slide rule.
  • Kids Can Still Read Cursive. Kids can be taught to read cursive in thirty to sixty minutes without producing it.
  • Adults are Abandoning Cursive. Keyboarding and printing are favored nowadays.   
  • Signatures. In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind.

There are also many Cursive Yeasayers in the US. One Yeasayer (nytimes.com) was Suzanne Baruch Asherson, a California school occupational therapist and national presenter for Handwriting Without Tears (an early childhood education company); another (psychologytoday.com) was Christopher Bergland, a science writer and promotor of cerebellum optimization; and, writing professionals and researchers reporting at mycursive.com, mentalfloss.com, and scholastic.com. Their combined statements:

  • Senses and the Brain are Activated. Sight, touch, and sound senses are activated by putting a writing instrument to paper, opening the brain for learning. Handwriting in general stimulates the brain like nothing else.
  • Flow of Cursive Writing Stimulates the Brain. Brain synapses, synchronicity between the left and right cerebral hemispheres, hand-eye coordination, and sensory-motor integrations build neural pathways as those pathways mimic the flow of cursive letters’ connections, absent when printing or typing. Cursive works the entire brain.
  • Benefits of Forming and Connecting Cursive Letters. Students develop fine motor skills when using cursive, which leads to learning correct spacing of letters, transferring to words and sentences.
  • Flow Allows Shift to Content. The physical act of writing in cursive also increases the flow of thought, comprehension, and participation in learning since cursive’s speed and efficiency allow students to focus on their written content, not the writing.
  • Faster Writing, Plus. Students can take notes faster in cursive than when printing or keyboarding, which can result in greater retention of content and an increase in the brain’s muscle memory.
  • Reflection and Synthesis. Students who take notes in cursive tend to reflect on and synthesize ideas into their own words, i.e., develop higher-order thinking skills. Keyboarders tend to type what is said verbatim.
  • Self-Discipline. Cursive requires that a writing instrument be held a certain way, paper be slanted correctly, and students’ posture be upright, which can help develop self-discipline and body alignment.
  • Improved Reading. Cursive, but not printing or keyboarding, was found to activate a “reading circuit” for effective letter processing, helping reading proficiency.
  • Improved Language Arts. Research showed an increase in mental effectiveness in cursive users, leading to their learning and retaining correct grammar, spelling, reading, and writing.
  • Learning and Remembering. Data analyses show cursive handwriting primed the brain for learning by synchronizing brain waves, important for encoding new information and for remembering. Not learning cursive may hinder the brain’s optimal potential in these areas.
  • Universal Accessibility. Fast, legible handwriting is a technology universally accessible to all students, regardless of socioeconomic levels and/or ability to acquire and use computers and cellphones.
  • Self-Confidence. Students who master cursive penmanship improve their self-confidence to communicate freely.
  • Beyond the Classroom. Cursive is, therefore, vital for helping students master standards of written expression and critical thinking, life skills that move beyond testing into adulthood.   

Some archivists believe that continuing to use cursive preserves a historical tradition and even history itself since handwritten documents cannot be easily deleted.

Graphologists (those who study and analyze handwriting) tend to ask for writing samples in cursive since the connections between cursive letters are rich sources for analyses not available from printing.

Is cursive making a comeback? Yes! As of 2020, twenty-one states in the US (up seven from 2019) require students to learn and use cursive handwriting. Does your state? Check HERE.

So, how did I respond to that parent’s question at Back-to-School Night? “Cursive makes kids smarter! Research shows it. And cursive is another tool on kids’ tool belts. More tools, more work accomplished efficiently well into adulthood. Care to see my research?”

Cursive instruction has existed in the US since the early 1850s. As I observe National Handwriting Day each year on January 23 (John Handcock’s birthday), my mantra is, “Cursive handwriting is on the wall—and must remain there.”

Sherrill Joseph

Sherrill Joseph is the award-winning author of the Botanic Hill Detectives series for middle graders. You can find out more about her on her website, sherrilljoseph.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Pinterest, or Instagram.

This Post Has 30 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Sherrill — Whether taught at home, in school, or both, I’m a huge proponent of cursive writing!

  2. Tim
    Tim

    What an interesting post! I love all the info you’ve included. My cursive writing is illegible, so I usually print. I use cursive when I’m jotting down notes to myself. It’s like I’m writing in a secret code. ;^)

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      P.S. Tim, if you click on the hyperlink in my post about which states mandate cursive instruction, then scroll down the page from mycursive.com, you’ll see a 52-page handbook to download for free for practicing. Also, further on in the article, there are techniques for anyone to use to improve their cursive.

  3. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Wonderful, Laurie! Please spread the word about cursive’s many benefits when you can.

  4. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    I love the information you’ve included in this post, Sherrill. We lived in Texas during my grade school years, and cursive was taught early. Each morning during our 7th and 8th grade years, we started with Penmanship, completing exercises that consisted of push and pulls and ovals, then practicing each capital and small letter of the alphabet, and then writing word lists and sentences that the teacher provided. It’s remarkable how my handwriting resembles my siblings and many of my classmates, since we were all taught to practice the same forms. As we’ve aged, our handwriting has gotten less precise for sure, although my sister’s remains pretty perfect. My right arm was broken and my right hand paralyzed for almost a year, so mine is pretty sloppy at this point, but if I really try, I can almost approximate what it used to be. I love all the data that supports cursive handwriting. Thanks for such an interesting post!

    1. Sheila Lowe
      Sheila Lowe

      Interestingly, Margaret, research shows that even in a case like yours, where you had to use your opposite writing hand, eventually, your personality traits show in your handwriting, just the same as in your natural hand.

    2. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Margaret! I wonder if you reverted to practicing those push, pulls, and ovals if that would help you polish your cursive.

  5. Avatar
    Jacqueline Vick

    You have hit on one of my sore spots. Learning handwriting is so necessary, and you’ve hit on all the reasons. And how will these children read documents, such as the Constitution? It’s such a disservice to take it out of school. As for the parent? I go to the butterfly analogy. If you help a butterfly out of the cocoon, it will die. The struggle and “torture” is natures way of toughening us up.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Great butterfly analogy, Jacqueline. Love it. Yes, most of the best learning comes about through toil/”torture”! At least that’s true for me. And educational pedagogy would back that up.

  6. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    What an interesting topic, and I’m glad you sided with the cursive proponents. Dropping the teaching of cursive because of computers is analogous to dropping the study of math because of calculators. If the trend continues, the only ones doing any thinking will be the machines.

    1. Sherrill M Joseph
      Sherrill M Joseph

      Agreed, Like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and we know what happened because a machine went berserk.

  7. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    January 23 was National Handwriting Day.
    As president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, when I learned that the Common Core Curriculum had removed the requirement to teach cursive writing, and most states had stopped teaching it, I formed the Campaign for Cursive committee. That committee has worked nonstop with legislators, educators, and parents in many states. I’m happy to say that as of an informal survey last year, 25 states have now returned the requirement to teach cursive handwriting to the curriculum, and 6 more have legislation pending. Only 10 states have no requirement at all. We need to all work together to keep publicizing the importance of maintaining this lifelong skill in a digital age. For anyone who would like to see some of the peer-reviewed research to support this position, AHAF has a white paper (in 7 languages) that was recently dated. It can be downloaded free: http://www.ahafahandwriting.org

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Brava, Sheila! I know the twenty-one states than mandate cursive as of 2020 (hyperlink in my blog post). Would love to know the newest four to join. And what are the six more with legislation pending? I couldn’t find the answers online. Thanks!

  8. Avatar
    Avanti Centrae

    Interesting info. I find that physically writing gets the creative juices flowing. I hope it continues to be taught.

  9. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I find that cursive notes stick with me, which is why I’m not surprised by the research. One of the reasons my desk is continually littered with small bits of paper. The interesting thing is that I’m starting to write digitally on an iPad with the Apple pencil/stylus. It’s my cursive, but it’s retained as a digital file than a bit of paper. So far, best of both worlds. But I still love my fountain pens.

  10. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Great post. I always found cursive writing fun. In college all the notes I did were made via cursive writing and recently in cleaning out a closet of notebooks it was interesting for me to look at how tiny and economical my handwriting was when writing fast during lectures, and how perfect it seemed back then. I don’t know how I did it. Cursive has so much to do with learning and retention that it’s silly for states not to mandate learning it. Wisconsin is one that I don’t see on your list, sadly.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      See Sheila’s note, above. Maybe it’s one of the four latest states to get on board, or one of the six pending. I hope California rejoins the cursive mandate.

  11. Avatar
    Anastasia Abboud

    What a fascinating post! Thank you!

    I’m sort of in the middle as to whether or not it should be mandated. I agree that it would be very sad to lose cursive, but I don’t think we will. As your article suggests, It will be forever in important and revered historical documents. Also, it will always be held as an art form. Considering that, to at least be familiar with it I
    would certainly be a boon to our young. I hope my grandchildren learn it. They should, as I checked the link you provide and Texas is one of the states on the list.

    But when will they use it in school or even in most jobs? Surely even typed, say, book reports (for example) are preferable and more efficient to pages of cursive?

    Still, good penmanship is a skill worth having. I don’t doubt that your students will be smarter for it. They are fortunate to have a teacher like you.

    All the best!

  12. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks for your comments, Anastasia. Taking notes from a class discussion or while doing research are good times to use cursive, the benefits being many as shared in my blog. Doing handwritten rough drafts could also help the creative process. And, as you pointed out, “good penmanship is a skill worth having.” In as little as fifteen minutes a day, most people, child or adult, can improve their penmanship and gain satisfaction from their efforts as well.

  13. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Thanks so much Sherrill for bring home all the great reasons to keep handwriting in school. I use it for all my note taking (5-10 conferences per year) and it helps me retain the info.
    On a side note, I recently learned that doing things with your less dominant hand stimulates the brain in unimaginable ways. For aging folks, it can help you retain memory and even restore memories long forgotten. I point this out because as a piano teacher, I always say, if you can do it with your right hand, then you should be able to do it with your left. Unlike other instruments, we practice exercises to improve agility and strength in both the left and right hands.
    My Grandmother, who was also a great piano player and teacher, knew this to be true as well. She even took the lesson to the next level and taught herself how to write with her less dominant (left) hand. This proved to be worthwhile in her late years because she developed a palsy in her right hand and couldn’t even hold a pen, let alone write. Learning to write with my left hand is on my bucket list!
    T

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      That’s fascinating, Tracey, and great advice! I should have thought of that, being a piano player years ago, plus my dad played classical piano every day. He always started with an hour of Czerny’s finger exercises before opening his sheet music. An exercise I do many times a day is “piano hands” where I imitate playing the piano (arpeggios and crossovers) with both hands outstretched in front of me. I’m going to try practicing cursive with my nondominant hand.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Will do! Thanks, Tracey.

  14. joyribar
    joyribar

    Sherrill: I’m so happy you wrote about cursive writing and its importance. As a high school and college English educator, I’ve advocated for continuing to teach kids cursive writing. It’s such an important hand to brain connector and builds those critical pathways in the brain for knowledge and creativity. I was part of our technology steering committee at my school for years and constantly touted the benefits of children continuing to learn cursive. I read brain studies for fun, so I used to bring them to these meetings. I’m sure some of the techies were eye rolling silently in my direction.

  15. Sherrill M Joseph
    Sherrill M Joseph

    Thanks, Joy. And thanks for all you did to support cursive. It used to be mandated instruction here in CA, but that was dropped about ten years ago when the Common Core Standards descended upon us. I still taught it, but it’s a hard sell these days, sadly. I sincerely hope CA and many other states return cursive to the curriculum.

  16. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I love this, Sherrill! My daughter, 25, never learned cursive in school but she adores my mom, her grandmother’s handwritten notes. My mom taught 3rd grade for 21 years and has picture perfect cursive so my daughter wanted to learn. We started doing our grocery lists in cursive. She started with just letters, but now she can link them altogether and her writing is beautiful. The fun part for me is bringing back that rote memory of how to do. I have to admit to needing to look up capital Qs and Zs online. Not only does it spur creativity, it’s helping to tie 3 generations together.

  17. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    That’s a fabulous success story, Sharon! I’m so happy that your daughter learned cursive. I wonder how many kids today might have similar stories in the future. Thanks for sharing!

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