“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.”