What We Lose With the Decline of Cursive
Is it still necessary to teach cursive writing in our educational institutions? Despite the fact that schools are shifting resources away from the intricate, painstakingly rendered script and toward keyboard skills, the debate continues.
The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 42 states and the District of Columbia, mandate that handwriting instruction be provided only in kindergarten and first grade, with subsequent instruction in keyboard skills. Cursive is not mentioned in the standards. However, cursive instruction is required in 14 states, and the skill inspires fierce loyalty among those who believe that the founding fathers would disapprove of our abandonment of the script—students must learn cursive in order to decipher the intent of the original Constitution, for example—and others who believe that our very identities are compromised when we are unable to create identifiable signatures.
The words of Alabama state Rep. Dickie Drake, who sponsored a 2016 bill requiring cursive instruction in schools, sum up his feelings: “I believe your cursive writing identifies you just as much as your physical characteristics.”
In May 2016, Gov. Robert Bentley signed the bill into law, no doubt with a flourish of cursive, and it went into effect. However, it was only one salvo in a long-running battle that is now gaining momentum once again. Cursive instruction in elementary schools was encouraged in the fall by New York City’s public schools, which are “the nation’s largest school district, with 1.1 million students,” according to the New York Times. As a result, media outlets ranging from The Economist to PBS NewsHour to The Huffington Post have continued to write about the resurgence of cursive as parents, teachers, and researchers have publicly and vociferously questioned the wisdom of eliminating it from the classroom.
a draught of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson, with amendments suggested by Benjamin Franklin
Ben Franklin’s suggestions for changes to Thomas Jefferson’s draught of the Declaration of Independence were included in the document. Is the extinction of cursive a threat to our ability to maintain ties to the past?
Cursive has traditionally been associated with good character and virtue; in the nineteenth century, it was widely taught as “a Christian ideal… occasionally credited with disciplining the mind,” according to one source. It was a high point in the history of writing, but it declined throughout the twentieth century as people shifted from handwriting to typewriters (the Signet, manufactured by Royal in the 1930s), then to rudimentary computers, and finally to powerful smartphones (which are now the norm). Since the 1970s, instruction in cursive has been declining, and many teacher education programmes do not address handwriting instruction, effectively isolating the skill from its most natural advocates. Removal of cursive from school curricula, according to Anne Trubek, author of the 2016 book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, represents a natural progression in the process of changing educational practises. New modes of communication and sense-making have appeared and vanished over time, according to her, and “proclaiming the superiority of one way of forming a ‘j’ over others is a trope that appears throughout the history of handwriting.”
Is everything just a relic of the past, then? Is it possible that the parents and teachers who have become embroiled in the controversy are simply reliving old glories and attempting to resurrect a stale relic? Alternatively, is the battle over the future of cursive really a battle over what has happened in the past?
The script’s supporters, on the other hand, are clearly of the opposite opinion. The practise of cursive writing, and more broadly, handwriting in general, has been shown to have cognitive and academic benefits in numerous studies. When young children first print letters and then read them, brain scans reveal that neural circuitry lights up in their brains. When the letters are typed or traced, the same effect does not appear to be present. A fascinating finding reported in The New York Times is that different types of printing (block printing, cursive, and typing) “elicit distinct neurological patterns,” suggesting that the brain has an underlying sensitivity for minor changes in the way letters are rendered on the page. When it comes to reading and writing, it appears that we are hardwired for adaptability.
I believe that your cursive writing distinguishes you as much as your physical characteristics do.
Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, confirms this point, arguing that it is not an either/or situation, and that there are compelling reasons to teach handwriting, cursive, and keyboard skills to children. As a result of the fact that cursive is faster than print, “she and her coauthors reported that cursive in particular had measurable positive effects on older children’s spelling and composition skills”—because cursive is faster than print (though the speed argument is itself a disputed point). It has also been shown in some studies that cursive can aid students with dyslexia in their learning to read and write because it “integrates hand-eye coordination with fine motor skills as well as other brain and memory functions.” Several other studies expand on the benefits of handwriting in general while pointing out the limitations of computer-based literacy. For example, one study concluded that “teaching handwriting improves students’ composition skills, reading comprehension, brain function, and motor skills,” and another concluded that students who take notes by hand rather than on a laptop process the information more effectively
If these findings are correct, they provide a compelling case for continuing to teach handwriting, even if it is not necessarily in cursive form. However, digital technology has unquestionably emerged as a powerful democratising force, removing barriers to access for students with special needs and enabling them to succeed in school. Similarly, while some studies have found that cursive can assist dyslexic students in learning to read, others, such as a study from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, have found that students with dyslexia will be “big winners” from a switch to keyboarding because that skill will help them improve on the volume of words used, written clarity, spelling, and editing. A second advantage, according to Steve Graham, a former teacher and education professor who has studied writing instruction for more than three decades, is that “when teachers rate multiple versions of the same paper that differ only in terms of legibility, they assign higher grades to neatly written versions of the paper.” Because of keyboards, that deeply unfair bias is rendered moot.
With the rapid pace of technological change, the future of handwriting is in jeopardy. The assault on all forms of manual writing is likely to continue indefinitely. In the rapidly growing fields of artificial intelligence and language recognition, millions of consumers now have access to powerful, yet marvellously simple communication tools that are easy to use. We should, however, consider whether, in light of all of the compelling research on handwriting and the deep cultural and historical significance of the practise, the Common Core has abandoned the teaching of handwriting and cursive in an overzealous manner. “We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less,” writes Anne Trubek in her book, “but loss is unavoidable.” She goes on to say that “we will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less.” So the question remains: what exactly are we giving up, and what is it worth to us in return?