Think back to the last time you wrote in cursive — you know, that fancy penmanship you may have learned way back in grade school, complete with elegant loops, curls and flourishes.
These days, with our fingers tapping on QWERTY keyboards, Evernote taking the place of sticky notes and tablets replacing paper notebooks, a question arises: Has the rise of technology led to the fall of cursive handwriting?
In the United States, somewhere around the third grade, cursive handwriting instruction has long been a sort of milestone, or right of passage. But in recent years, the nation’s Common Core State Standards — which at least 45 states and the District of Columbia, have voluntarily adopted — took out the requirement for cursive instruction in K through 12 schools. It has stirred quite the debate, since it’s up to each individual state to decide whether cursive is important enough to teach its own students. In recent months, North Carolina legislators approved a bill to require its students to learn cursive in elementary school, the Winston-Salem Journal reported. North Carolina joins states like California, Massachusetts and Georgia, which have already added a cursive writing requirement, according to The Associated Press.
Some argue that cursive has important cognitive benefits or is an educational tradition worth continuing, while others don’t mind its demise.
Suzanne Asherson, an occupational therapist with the Beverly Hills Unified School District in California, is among those who believe cursive should very much still be taught to children today. Asherson argues cursive is not only faster and more efficient than print writing but says the benefits go beyond writing.
“There’s definitely a link between cursive writing and brain development,” said Asherson, who also presents national workshops on behalf of the Handwriting Without Tears program. She recently wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, in which she highlighted her perspective:
Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets. In fact, learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.
Asherson told Mashable that the discussion
is really “not about cursive versus technology.”
“In today’s world … children need to know how to both use keyboarding to type, as well as being able to pick up a pencil or a pen and be able to write,” Asherson said. “Both skills are necessary and should be taught to our children in order to have functional adults who are efficient in their jobs and in the real world.”
Michael Ray Smith, a new media professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, agrees that cursive is important. He wonders about the costs of school districts ditching cursive instruction for other skills in demand, like computer keyboarding.
“The problem with this kind of trade-off is that students are not getting the brain activity that only occurs with handwriting and all goes along with motor and cognitive skills,” wrote Smith, in a statement to Mashable. “In the short run, handwriting is poorer. In the long run, abstract thinking and higher-order thinking may not be as well developed.”
A ‘Church of Cursive’
Handwriting expert and instructor Kate Gladstone
argues that while handwriting is important, cursive isn’t.
“Teaching handwriting doesn’t mean it has to be cursive, any more than teaching math means it has to be in Roman numerals,” Gladstone told Mashable. She advocates for students learning to read cursive but opposes cursive handwriting mandates, saying that cursive writing should just be an elective.
“Most of us when we are little kids are told at some stage: ‘You’re going to learn cursive and this is important so you can legally sign things, and own property and vote and be a big kid and then be a grown up — which is baloney. Printed signatures are legal and always have been,” she said.
Gladstone joked that some cursive proponents seem to engage in “cursive worship.”
“We are not going to pack up and stop doing business as a civilization just because people are no longer joining all their letters,” said Gladstone, who also directs a world handwriting contest.
Technology is not killing handwriting, according to Gladstone, but instead technology is giving “handwriting a new playground — a whole new realm to be in.”
“I’d say a lot of people have to be writing by hand and have to be trying at least to do it in some recognizable manner if there are literally scores of handwriting recognition and other handwriting apps that you can buy,” said Gladstone, citing the number of iOS and Android handwriting apps on the market. Even search giant Google now lets mobile users search via handwriting recognition.
Handwriting as an Equalizer
But for those who don’t have access to digital devices, handwriting is a “great equalizer for many kids,” said Kathleen Wright, national handwriting product manager at Zaner-Bloser — a curriculum company well-known for its handwriting instruction methods.
“I think the one thing that happens with a school that might focus only on digital and not give kids access to writing, is that you might see, maybe the composition isn’t going to be as long,” Wright said. “It may not be as creative … if you’re struggling with a keyboard.”
“I think it’s a human thing — that the act of writing by hand just resonates within us.”
That’s why Wright believes students should be taught both analog and digital skills: “Let’s introduce them to all of these things and then you have a great big tool belt and you can choose.”
Zaner-Bloser has an annual national handwriting contest for students in grades 1 to 8, in which nearly 300,000 students submit entries, according to Wright. Eleven-year-old Caroline White of Savannah, Tenn., won the top prize among fifth graders nationwide for her stellar handwriting this year.
Caroline told Mashable that handwriting is important to her since it “helps people communicate more easily.”
“It’s harder writing on the computer … because I think you have more imagination when you write [by hand],” the soon-to-be sixth grader added.
Her mother, Ann Marie White, agreed: “In my opinion, our creative writing skills have decreased overall. That is an ongoing conversation with teachers at school: You have those who are just adamant that it should be cursive all the way, and then you have those that say, ‘No … we just need to go to keyboarding because that’s how everyone communicates now.’”
White says her own children’s school district in Tennessee used to teach keyboarding in middle school but has recently pushed that earlier to kindergarten and first grade.
“With all of the research and with everything being online, I do think they need those keyboarding skills [as well],” White said.
Judging from its lasting presence in classrooms across the U.S., it seems technology hasn’t “killed” cursive but rather has sparked continued debate about its relevance in American society.
The western state of Utah nixed cursive from its own standards in 2010, but recently has been questioning whether to reintroduce it as a requirement. Tiffany Hall, K through 12 literacy coordinator at the Utah State Office of Education, said that, after a thorough study, they determined that cursive is important, since she says it can help students write more quickly. Hall’s office is now recommending Utah add cursive back to its standards.
“I think the purpose of teaching [print] handwriting is to make students efficient readers and writers, and then moving into cursive because it makes them faster writers,” Hall said.
But while Hall says cursive is still relevant today from an instructional standpoint, she brushes off any sort of cultural or emotional ties to it, saying Utah will regularly revisit their decision every few years.
“I’m prepared to go back and continue to look at these standards and say: ‘What are we doing to make the best and most effective use of the limited amount of instructional time that we have?’ Because if it’s not important, we need to get rid of it, we don’t have enough time,” Hall said.
She continued, “As our knowledge and understanding of how kids learn improves, and as we look at the kinds of jobs they’re going to have in the 21st century and the skills they’re going to need to have in the 21st century, we need to be changing too.”