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The case for cursive

Should script be taught in the 21st century? Our education expert examines the pros and cons.

August 28, 2019

By Matt Watson

There are nearly 40,000 words in the Common Core State Standards for language arts, but for some parents and educators, it's one missing word that sparked a debate: cursive.

Common Core became the predominant K-12 standards for language arts (as well as mathematics) in the U.S. in 2010. Cursive instruction had been gradually declining in schools since the 1990s, says Krista Griffin, associate professor of literacy at Metropolitan State University of Denver, but its omission from the widely adopted Common Core renewed debates around the value of cursive instruction in 21st century schools.

Some 20 states mandate that students learn cursive, including Texas, which just brought cursive back into its elementary schools this fall. Most of the other states clinging to cursive are in the South, but New York City schools reintroduced cursive to their 1.1 million students in 2016.

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Colorado is a local-control state, Griffin said, so cursive is limited mostly to private schools.

“It’s not prevalent, because there’s not time to teach it. In the 1950s, teachers had all the time in the world. Their jobs were not dependent on how well their students did on high-stakes tests. Now, there’s not time in the day to teach it,” she said.

So what’s the case for cursive in the 21st century? Griffin examined the three main arguments for learning longhand penmanship.

Many historical documents are written in cursive, including family letters and records

Proponents for learning cursive are keen on pointing out that historical knowledge may be lost if future generations can’t read cursive texts such as the country’s founding documents.

However, most of the nation’s most important documents are available in print or online, Griffin said. For instance, the National Archives offer a transcription of the Declaration of Independence, where a photo of the original handwritten document shows how faded the cursive text is, rendering it almost impossible to read by anyone.

But even the Declaration of Independence was typeset for ease of distribution in July 1776, and many historians believe that the original handwritten declaration was signed by congressional delegates in August, a month later. Most 18th-century Americans read the Declaration in print because of printing-press technology.

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Of course, not all texts written in cursive are as accessible as those penned by the Founding Fathers. Some parents want their children to learn cursive so they can read notes from their grandparents, Griffin said. Parents can always teach their kids cursive if their family has hand-written documents that are important to them, she said. Plus, you don’t have to learn to write perfectly in cursive to be able to read it.

“It might take some practice, but it’s like hieroglyphics – you can understand what something looks like without knowing how to write it,” she said.

Cursive has cognitive advantages over keyboarding

Another common refrain is that handwriting is better for note-taking than typing. And when it comes to this case for cursive, the science backs it up – sort of.

“There is cognitive research that supports that if you hand-write something, there are some things going on cognitively that don’t happen when you are keyboarding. I would agree, and the research stands up to that, but it’s not specific to cursive; it’s speaking to handwriting more generally,” she said.

People can take notes nearly word for word on a laptop, but when you write by hand, you have to paraphrase and summarize, noting the most important things.

“Your mind is actively making sense of things instead of just writing down everything you hear,” Griffin said.

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But that applies to all handwriting, not just cursive. For someone who writes faster in print, or someone who struggles with handwriting enough that they retain more information when keyboarding, cursive isn’t always the best option cognitively, she said.

“The whole point of writing is to communicate,” Griffin said. “We want to know that students can communicate as efficiently and clearly as they can. For some people, it’s keyboarding; for some, it’s cursive; and for some, it might be printing. For others, it might be a combination of the three, depending on what they’re doing.”

Cursive is easier for people with dyslexia

There is anecdotal evidence that dyslexic students, prone to transposing and omitting letters when handwriting, are more successful when writing in cursive because the letters are connected and the pen stays on the paper.

But that concept doesn’t work universally, Griffin said. Likewise, cursive isn’t a focus in MSU Denver’s special-education teacher preparation.

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“I was talking to my friend who is dyslexic, and she said cursive for sure helps her. But she has a daughter who is dyslexic, and when she tried to teach it to her, it was a disaster,” Griffin said. “Really, what it comes down to is what’s best for kids and how they all learn differently.”

Even if did work for all students with dyslexia or other academic struggles, that wouldn’t mandate that all students need to learn it, she said.

The verdict is …

After assessing the arguments, Griffin said her opinion is that the topic of cursive is like any other in education: There isn’t one thing that is best for every child.

Most of the arguments for cursive are more rooted in emotion and tradition than research, she said.

“There’s no research that says every student will do better in life if they learn cursive. There’s also no research that says the opposite,” she said. “But for the most part, it seems to be something that isn’t necessary for people who are generations removed from when it was more standard.”

More critical to cursive’s fate, perhaps, is the fact that cursive isn’t a topic being taught to future teachers studying at MSU Denver.

“It’s most likely not something they’ll be expected to do,” Griffin said.

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