The Great Cursive Writing Debate: Lost Art or Vital Skill?

The Great Cursive Writing Debate: Lost Art or Vital Skill?

The Oxford comma debate has been settled, as least in one court of law.

But another debate rages on in the halls of academia and the forums of word nerds: the great cursive debate.

Common Core standards removed cursive instruction as a requirement, which means that in 41 states, teachers aren’t obligated to teach it…so many of them don’t.

But states like Tennessee, Louisiana and California have fought back, making cursive a statewide standard.

To some, this gradual phasing out is inevitable, if not overdue. Others lament the loss of what they see as an art form and a necessary part of childhood education.

So are the connections, curlicues and flourishes most of us grew up with still relevant, or not?

Here’s a look at both sides of the debate.

Pros of cursive instruction

1. It’s good for your brain

According to science, the visceral experience of cursive writing can help students in more ways than being able to pen a pretty thank you note.

Since it engages both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, it can actually aid in reading comprehension, idea generation, spelling, brain development and memory.

2. It helps with dyslexia

Studies also suggest learning cursive can help students who suffer from forms of dyslexia, a disorder in which people have difficulty reading and writing words.

Typing, printing and cursive all stimulate different parts of the brain, and something about the circuits cursive activates, as well as the fine motor skills it hones, may help those who have difficulty forming written letters in the right order.

3. It bridges generations

Children who never learn cursive could have trouble doing things like deciphering a birthday note from Grandma or recognizing the words John Hancock signed his name under on the Declaration of Independence.

Just like knowing Latin can help you understand new languages, knowing cursive can help you unlock a wealth of historical knowledge and connect with past generations.

“Cursive writing is a long-held cultural tradition in this country and should continue to be taught,” says Jimmy Bryant, director of archives and special collections at the University of Central Arkansas; “not just for the sake of tradition, but also to preserve the history of our nation.”

4. It’s a form of creativity

From art classes to music programs, the chances for students to exercise creativity in school have been on the decline for decades. If cursive writing is phased out altogether, supporters argue, it will be one more form of artistic self-expression missing from today’s curriculums.

I believe that cursive handwriting is the creative canary in the coal mine — and it’s slowly, almost imperceptibly dying,” says cursive advocate Carew Papritz in an interview with The Good Men Project. “In our 24/7, technology-drenched, social-media drowning world, we are too busy to notice and too busy to care that we are losing the ability to learn how to self-express — by developing and harnessing the creative side of our nature.”

Cons of cursive instruction

1. It’s gone the way of the typewriter

In our digital age of laptops and texting, some argue cursive has become obsolete.

How many times have you penned a letter, written a check or drafted a story out longhand lately? (If the latter, you’re in good company — it’s the preferred method of wordsmiths like George R. R. Martin and Joyce Carol Oates ). Legal signatures don’t need to be in cursive; in fact, electronic signatures are often acceptable.

As we have done with the abacus and the slide rule, it is time to retire the teaching of cursive. The writing is on the wall,” writes Morgan Polikoff, assistant education professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, in a New York Times opinion piece titled, “Let Cursive Writing Die.”

2. It wastes valuable learning time

Teachers are already hard-pressed to cram everything they’re supposed to into the school day, especially in an educational atmosphere heavily geared towards meet testing requirements.

With big expectations to live up and not much time to do it in, teachers are forced to be selective — and sometimes, cursive writing just doesn’t make the cut.

“One of the things we heard from teachers around the country…was that sometimes cursive writing takes an enormous amount of instructional time,” Sue Pimentel, one of the people in charge of setting Common Core’s English/language standards, told PBS NewsHour. “You could be spending time on other things rather than students practicing cursive writing. It’s really a matter of emphasis.”

3. You can get the benefits of handwriting without writing in cursive

You don’t have to know how to write cursive in order to be able to read it.

There are no studies that show, definitely, that writing in cursive is more efficient than printing. Opponents argue that holding onto cursive as the last bastion of the art of handwriting misses the mark.

As handwriting author Kate Gladstone puts it in an opinion piece on The New York Times, Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.”

4. Most people abandon it anyway

Even those who learn cursive as children usually end up scrapping the practice as they get older.

A survey conducted by Zane-Bloser, a cursive textbook publisher, found that even handwriting teachers rarely used cursive regularly. The majority of them used an amalgam of print and cursive writing, something I myself do after a lifetime of tinkering with my personal style and learning what felt most efficient for me.

That said, would I go back in time and remove cursive from my lessons if I could, in order to focus on whatever might better serve me in 2017? I was the sort of kid who asked for a calligraphy set for Christmas, so I recuse myself from passing judgment.

Where do you fall in the great cursive debate? Yay or nay?

cursive writing debate

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  • PJ says:

    #1. We are not guaranteed there will always be easy access to computers. Cursive would be more efficient than printing.
    #2. It is a special pleasure to see my long deceased mom’s handwriting. Her handwriting is a connection to her, I feel her essence. I would not have that experience if cursive had not been taught.

  • Venetia says:

    My late grandfather (who passed away in 2014 aged 96) taught me to write cursive at the same time as he taught me to read when I was a child, and I have used it ever since (I heartily agree with point 3 in favour). I find it so much quicker and more efficient than printing each letter individually. It is not often mentioned that with practice and some shorthand, you can write cursive almost as fast as someone is speaking. And if I want to rapidly jot down a few rough ideas, it’s far nicer to put pet to paper!

  • Corlia says:

    I see both sides of this debate. Being left-handed, in my experience, cursive writing is faster and easier on the wrists. Writing is difficult for many left-handers in general, and few of us have had the luxury of a writing instructor who really understands our challenges. I’ve found that cursive writing is much easier on my wrist than printing because it doesn’t require so much repetitive lifting and lowering of the pencil tip while writing.

    • Wendy says:

      Really? I always have a problem with the paper coming back up when I stop pressing with the pen (like to come back and cross a “t”), leaving me these extra strokes. A strawfoot can still hold the right side down with a pinky while the rest of the hand lifts to go back for the cross, while us southpaws have to completely re-position.

  • Kevin says:

    I changed schools in sixth grade, where one school was just beginning cursive but the next just ending the instruction. Consequently, my cursive is worse than useless—and I’m not the only one, as other comments demonstrate. Printing is always the more legible way to go, unless your cursive writing is outstanding.

  • NA says:

    My cursive as a child reflected the interest I had in it at the time. However, in seventh and eighth grade we had a calligraphy section in art class, a class in which I was constitutionally incapable of drawing the clowns and landscapes and other things with which we were presented and having them turn out anything like the original we were copying. I am artistic in other ways, but I can’t draw stick figures that don’t get big laughs.

    Well, all of a sudden there was something I could do in that class that actually worked! I flipped and curlicued my way to one of the only A’s I got in that class. In the process, my cursive improved, and I got quite the flourish in my style.

    I use cursive all the time, and I even still use the calligraphy skills sometimes to give my printing more flair.

    My question is what happens to the fascinating art of handwriting analysis if there is no more handwriting??

  • Deepak Charles says:

    I’ve always written in cursive my entire life. Pretty proud of it as well (mostly because there are people who go “whoa!” when they see it) which kinda proves my point about it definitely getting into the ‘lost art’ form. It’s not needed (the main point is for people to communicate to other people) but it genuinely feels like less and less people prefer it.

  • Lewis Wooldridge says:

    Why not just teach cursive in Art class? Have it taught as Calligraphy each year in Elementary. Seems like a viable solution to me.

  • PJ says:

    One of the problems is that ‘cursive’ writing has been separated from penmanship which were two different courses when I was in school. Another is that teaching third graders cursive writing is a mistake because they cannot control the pencil very well – and they have no reason to use or practice it. Fifth grade is best, when students have an appreciation not only for beautiful words, but words written beautifully.

  • Tracy Corral says:

    Learning cursive is the basis for having a handwritten signature. E-signatures can be easily “forged” and stolen, for that matter. Further, if it is true that learning cursive works both sides of the brain, that probably isn’t a bad thing, since that could help with critical thinking and motor skills (whether or not the outcome is pretty).

  • In many aspects of modern life, aesthetics are dismissed as inefficient, useless. My son has a set of water glasses that I bought in Venice in 1961 — they have silver filigree patterns. “What use are they?” he asks. What use is making your bed in the morning? Why not buy IKEA furniture? Why not eat at MacDonald’s?
    Whether printed or cursive, one’s signature is unique. But cursive handwriting is also an artistic expression, and adds beauty and interest to life. We have given up ironing, wear blue jeans to the opera and pajamas to class. Perhaps it is time to re-value our behavior, appearance, and standards for their aesthetic value. My granddaughter tells me that she does not have to comb her hair because, “people should look inside, for how people are good inside.” They also see your hair. Comb it, dear. Don’t make it an obstacle to friendship.

  • I’ve never been taught cursive and my handwriting is appalling, my mom’s on the other hand, who’s been schooled in it, is utterly delightful.
    Should see the grocery lists, pieces of art.
    What ticks me off is that when she jots a line in a hurry, our handwriting becomes eerily similar.
    I wished someone taught me when I was younger and my brain was more malleable. So I’d at least have the choice whether write in cursive or not.

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    I’m surprised how strongly commenters feel about this. Cursive handwriting might indeed be a useful skill if industrial society collapsed, but riding and caring for horses might be more important. Perhaps we should teach children horse-riding, hunting and subsistence farming first!

  • Marc says:

    Having reached the age of sixty, I most definitely feel that the teaching of cursive should be scrapped. I find that my neatest, most elegant longhand is illegible to younger people, while clearly readable for those not too far below my own age. I enjoy having a cipher which is inaccessible to those pesky youngsters. Who wants to enrich their lives, anyway?

  • So, cursive is back in the education arena.
    “Hadn’t been for Grayson, I’d been in Tennessee” Whoops! Wrong song. Hadn’t been for cursive, I’d been higher up, you see.
    A little backstory: I missed more school than I attended until I started fourth grade in 1946 – why I missed is another story. My mother once told me I could read before I started school – don’t remember – it was a long time ago.
    I was born left handed and am still left eye dominant. In my generation, in rural North Dakota, being left-handed was not socially acceptable. (There’s more to that, but it’s not the point I’m making.)
    My memory does not include how I got along in my first three partial years of school, but when I entered fourth grade, I couldn’t write cursive like most who had completed the Palmer Penmanship training in third grade. I’m making a big assumption here – I must have been printing left-handed at the time. Miss. Y smacked my hand with a ruler every time she saw me using my left hand. (I actually do remember her family name, but to protect the guilty or innocent as the case may be.)
    Hadn’t been for high school science, I’d been doomed, you see. For those classes and lab reports, printing was acceptable and preferred. But printing an essay or a report for history or English class was very much not acceptable. Legibility and spelling were as important as content – well, I lost so many points from my unnatural eligible cursive, there weren’t enough content points to get a passing grade. Yet, I knew the difference between a gerund and a connecting verb. I learned to type and turned in a spelling error free, grammatically correct paper to my history teacher.
    Rejected! “Do over, reports must be in your own hand writing.”
    “O, woe is me. To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” Yep! We read Shakespeare.
    Guess I’m rambling again. However, I as much as firmly believe communicating in cursive is a reasonable skill, it should never be used as a measure of intelligence. Nor should the inability to write in cursive trump the quality and accuracy of school work content.
    Imagine this: getting a paper back from your history teacher with the comment, “Your Morse is unacceptable, -.. — / — …- . .-. / ..-. — .-. / –… ….. # / -.-. .-. . -.. .. (do over for 75% credit).

    • Susan Donetti says:

      I love your reply. I have a feeling you have an interesting life story. 🙂 My dad was left handed and I know he suffered similar bias because of it. And he was a brilliant man. I concur with your point that cursive writing should not be used as an indicator of intelligence nor trump quality and accuracy of content. PS We read Shakespeare too!

  • Michelle Guenther says:

    I definitely am PRO cursive! I almost never print, unless I’m writing to a younger person. In my opinion, cursive is much quicker and more visually appealing than printing. Personally, one of the things I love most about cursive is that it really does add that little bit of creativity to my daily life, just by writing.
    My kids attend a private school that only teaches cursive in 3rd grade. I’ve spoken to the administrator about it, but he too, says it is unnecessary in today’s electronic age. It saddens me because I feel like the younger generations are missing out on something significant.
    I am in complete agreement of all 4 points made under the “Pros of Cursive Writing” noted above. As for the Cons…I’ve heard many of them before and it always strikes me as a somewhat lazy mentality. It takes too much time to teach? What about the countless hours spent teaching sentence diagramming, which will never be necessary in the real world unless you are a teacher the teacher who’s teaching it?
    Besides, wouldn’t it better to know cursive and have the option whether or not to use it, than to NOT know it and be left in the dark? It’s like I’m always telling my kids when packing for a trip, “It’s better to be over prepared than under prepared”.
    To me, knowing cursive is empowering. I love being able to pick up old letters and postcards written by loved ones from the 1800’s and be able to read them. I can’t imagine if I were to look at them and feel as if I was looking at a foreign language.
    Loved this article.

  • Colin says:

    My hand writing was poor. I was sat on a desk away from the class and made to copy M, N and the numbers two and three.-many times. The letters M and N needed to be described like Norman arches. My hand writing is, even after this, not a thing of beauty.
    However, the eye to hand, pen and paper does often give a better first sketch to work from. When the blank canvas is ever so blank, scribbled text with crossings out can be like a machete cutting out a passage into sentences with the meaning you want. With the march of the machines I would suggest that humans need to get ever more experience of eye to hand co-ordination. To express individuality and to acquire dexterity as individuals. Hand writing skill is part of this development into appreciation of art forms and musicianship. Intrinsically a connection within humanity, that assists imagination and creativity. Those who see no future in the hand written word are paradoxically those who have been shown the skill ! The building blocks, such as even the correct way to hold a pen are often missed today. Scientific theory is dangerous, when there is an absence of practical testing and proof. there can be bias, where so often the scientist is wanting to confirm rather than test his or her opinion.

  • Gail Govan says:

    Anyone who does not read cursive writing has lost history. Not one single historical record of our nation is typed or printed. The census data, the family data, everything up until fairly recently, is written in readable cursive writing. It is a disgraceful dumbing down of the human mind to loose this art of writing.
    Of course, if the loss of history is the thing that is planned and desired, then our history will be lost and re-written. I know many home-schooled children who are way ahead on their contemporaries for more than a few reasons; one of them is that the home-schoolers learn to write like their forebears did.

    • Lynda says:

      I agree and believe with every fiber of my being with Mr. Papritz … “I believe that cursive handwriting is the creative canary in the coal mine —” WHY? Cursive is ever so PERSONAL. It reveals one’s humanity and crimes are solved through one’s handwriting! More, importantly, it is EMOTIONAL. When a loved one passes away and you come across a note they’d written …it evokes emotions. You can discern health issues (a shakey hand), psychological issues, and emotive sensibilities not found in typing , texting and voice to text. We need more humanity & emotion in our increasingly clinical world. Cursive rules!

  • I’m never quite sure how I feel about this. As a retired educational professional, I know the time spend teaching it is needed elsewhere. As a writer and someone who knows how to write cursive, I feel sad that younger generations won’t know how. As a creative person, I know everyone has their own style of writing as they get older and some styles are terrible and not even legible while others are lovely. I write outlines for my novels by hand and write letters to a sister who has a brain injury because her doctor wants her to write. We all know it’s good for the brain. Too many sides to this issue.

  • Christoph R. says:

    Fastidious article, comment to the author for bringing the most important arguments to the table.
    Same as the writer, I got myself a Cursive Writing Set for Christmas and because I had not learned the art at school, I taught myself and still like to write notes or gift cards in cursive now and then.
    However, I feel it may be a wrong move to keep cursive writing mandatory at school. Already, it´s difficult enough to keep children interested in the subjects and school in general, even without teaching them something most may consider pointless for themselves. We must ensure that they stay interested in learning something, and not scare them away.
    Apart from that, we do live and oftentimes work in an environment with people from various places among us. If we want our writing to be understood by as many people as possible, it seems to me we should keep our writing as easy and clear as possible. So, it may be more important to teach good and fast block writing than how to write in cursive.

  • We’re far too dependent on electricity and the internet. What if electricity isn’t available where we happen to be at the time, i.e. camping, visiting in a foreign country where electricity is shut down at times, etc. Say we’re a writer or are keeping a diary. My hand gets tired printing out everything. What if the internet isn’t working or has gone down due to an electrical shutdown. What if you have to study history written in cursive or take notes in a class where your devices aren’t working. I taught cursive. Too much unnecessary junk has been inserted into a teacher’s day now. Teachers are stretched to fill in for school boards not wanting to hire more teachers. This is just one more instance of the dumbing down of students. Already students in the U.S.A. are sliding down the scale of abilities. How much further will they slide before we wake up?

  • Victoria says:

    I learned cursive and love it. It is faster than printing and much more elegant. I am very familiar with computers, email and texting but I still prefer using cursive. It is more personal and it makes me an individual. I still have penpals that use cursive and I appreciate their letters. It is time we stop abolishing anything that is old. New is not always an improvement. I also still use my shorthand especially when I want to maintain my privacy. Use it for my lessons too. Love the time it saves. It really is another language. Love it.

  • This was an amazing article! I reside in East Tennessee and this is happening here in our school systems. My question is: How are our children going to view historical documentation or sign for a loan? I guess this really is the electronica age and this might end up being a lost art at some point and time. Those of us that are familiar when we age, can use it as a secret code 😉

    • Reese says:

      YES! Yes, Michelle! 100%! How WILL children be able to read historical documents? Must they just take someone’s word for what it says? Or… NO! They’ll just LISTEN to a recording of it! Now THAT is sad to imagine.

  • Cursive writing is essential. Not all of us are wealthy enough to ensure that we will be surrounded by expensive devices all our lives. And it’s sad when people can’t write conveniently by hand— which is easier if you can write cursive instead of cursing your childish block printing and what it does to your hand.
    Of course, children should be taught cursive earlier. Originally schoolbooks started out with cursive when a child learned to read.

    • Melinda says:

      Unfortunately, most kindergartners (which is the grade where most kids start learning to read nowadays) do not have the necessary fine motor skills yet to manage cursive writing. I used to work in a kindergarten classroom helping them with their handwriting. Our school district had chosen a printed D’Nealing font, which has lots of loops and curlicues and did nothing but frustrate many of the students because it was so fussy.

      • Sue Aliberti says:

        I agree that Kindergarten is not the correct time developmentally. My children’s elementary school teaches cursive writing in third grade. It’s not stated mandated in CT, but I’m glad that my boys have that skill. My younger son is artistic, so writing in cursive made him more willing to do his composition work.

        • Kent B says:

          Considering nearly everything important in life requires a signature in cursive. Bank loans, Car loans, credit cards, Mortgages, Wills, Marriage license, Divorce, Hospital stays, getting a job. I rarely ever use cursive in life, but the cursive signature sees near daily use.

    • I agree, Nissa! Remember how Y2K frightened all of us? If such a technological meltdown ever occurs we’ll be up a creek without a paddle!

    • I, also, am pro cursive. At the age of 3 years old, my dad showed me how to write in cursive. He had beautiful balanced writing. The slant of his letters were even and the capital letters were of a beautiful style he had practiced.
      I know personally that writing in a clear, readable cursive is a skill earned. I practiced for hours on lined paper at home as a child. During the 1950s our teachers in grammar school guided us to perfect this skill. To this day, my handwriting has been admired, and at every compliment I am reminded that it was a skill I pursued because I saw that others, like my teacher, Mrs. Ira Brown, wrote the most beautiful B’s – they were rounded curves with an extra flare that seemed artful. These two people influenced me to write with beauty and clarity. They didn’t just tell me to write well, but took the time to show me how, and encouraged me to be outstanding. Isn’t this a quality we are trying to teach our children in all areas of their lives?
      As I write letters, I am conscious of whether someone is able to read what I wrote. And this brings me to tell you that in reviewing some students homework submissions, I was shocked that their handwriting was a total wreck. Illegible. It is appalling that the school districts do not demand that homework must be turned in decent handwriting. How is a teacher to do her job correcting papers and teach a student, when the time she spends reading a piece of homework is doubled because it is so difficult to read?
      It may be said that cursive handwriting is a cultural and generational skill, but there should be a standard set to be followed. Discipline by way of a grade, like in the old days, would be a easy way of management by teachers.
      If the school system would specify that good handwriting is a goal to be achieved, then parents would be encouraged to help their children reach for excellence in their academic work.

  • Elizabeth Westra says:

    I have read that notes taken in cursive are remembered better, because the act of writing them down causes them to be put into the mind.

    • But you don’t remember where you read that.

      Whenever people tell me that they have read that cursive makes you smarter, gives you a better memory, makes you happier and more patriotic, etc., than any of the other forms of our handwriting, I ask them for the source. Ninety-eight times out of a hundred, they provide _no_sources (beyond “I just know I read it once, somewhere”) — the other two percent of the time, either they cite /a/ one or more research studies which (when read) include no such finding or claim (several of the studies popularly cited as “pro-cursive” are not even about handwriting at all), or they cite someone else’s similar misdescription (found in a newspaper, magazine, television show, or web-site) of the research.

      • Simone says:

        Kate Gladstone: Not remembering the source of an information does not invalidate the information itself!
        People are not schooled to trace back their knowledge, don’t hold it against them.
        It’s like reading books – we learn a lot through them and absorb a ton of knowledge, but how many remember exactly in which book, on which page, by which author an information was read?

        Sorry for being so blunt – otherwise, nice article. Does a good job in keeping the question of handwriting alive.

      • A.S. Merrimac says:

        What about “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,’’ published in the journal “Psychological Science” written by Princeton researcher Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles. From what I’ve read of that study they found that the physical act of writing, as opposed the typing or even printing study notes, and writing in general aids more than just memorization. It may help people with both reading and writing disabilities.

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    I can hardly read my own cursive handwriting, so I nearly always use block capitals on the rare occasions I write by hand. Cursive I mostly use for signing checks!

    • Reese says:

      And there, John, you touched on the core of the situation… The Signature! Will children now learn only how to sign their name? Will the line at the bottom of legal documents be the only place where ‘cursive’ is required? The educational system has been dumbing down and short changing students’ learning for several generations already. Let’s get rid of music in schools. Let’s teach ‘core’ math (whatever the heck that monstrosity is supposed to be!!) In fact… we can just get rid of writing altogether and just teach modern hieroglyphics – aka emojis. Isn’t that good enough? After all, kids don’t really need to learn to read do they? …DO THEY?

      Bear in mind, these students we are shortchanging on their education now are the future leaders of our nation. Can you just imagine the 146th amendment to the U.S. Constitution? It’s just a series of emoticons. And every member of Congress gets to put his/her X at the bottom in signing for its passage.

      So, just because too many people never bothered to learn how to write properly that’s a good argument for not teaching children to learn how to write in cursive? How about putting the onus where it belongs? People CAN learn how to write right. Too often, they just don’t WANT to. But this is not a good enough argument for NOT teaching children how to write. It is only a feeble excuse to continue the dumbing down of the nation.
      (Was I too indefinite in my feelings? Did I hold back too much?)

      • JOHN T SHEA says:

        Good points, Reese! And handwriting, either cursive or block, has the advantage of not needing a machine to create, just as paper books do not require a machine to read. Ubiquitous though they seem, machines are not always available to everybody everywhere.

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