Should Cursive Writing Be Taught in School?

pens 021

Are you old enough to remember learning to do cursive writing each school day, with a fat pencil on lined, horizontal notebooks? My recent brush with what some consider to be an outdated mode of writing has convinced me that those who want to eliminate cursive handwriting from public schools are in the wrong.

In June, my brother researched our family history at a genealogy center in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Our family hails from Ulster Scots, Protestants who sailed across the Irish Sea to Ireland for a better life.

Our ancestors came to America shortly after the Irish potato blight in  mid-century. My brother sought information about family in Ulster.

An archivist handed him a delicate, handwritten diary from 1840, that belonged to an Elizabeth with the same surname.  What made it so remarkable was that Elizabeth had beautiful, legible cursive handwriting, and there were a few clues about our shared history.  Her handwriting tells us that she was literate; that alone is a significant clue. What a treasure!

But it started me thinking — is cursive writing, like the delicate remembrances of my ancestor Elizabeth, dead? The issue recently came into national focus when George Zimmerman trial witness Rachel Jeantel admitted she couldn’t read cursive writing.  But with schools cutting programs to teach cursive writing skills because of the supposed cost-savings, how could we judge Jeantel?

In many school districts, students are weeks or even days away from a new school year. Today, children don’t receive the penmanship training that some of us, and our parents and grandparents received. The Boston Globe recently weighed in on the disappearing penmanship classes:

“To previous generations, clear and speedy handwriting was essential to everything from public documents to personal letters to generals’ orders in battle. As literacy became more widespread, various handwriting methods arose. There was italic, starting in the 15th century, and then in the 17th century came roundhand – called copperplate in the United States – seen in the Declaration of Independence and the script of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1820s, Platt Rogers Spencer developed the Spencerian script, which became the American standard in schools (it survives in the Coca-Cola logo).” 

The premiere method of penmanship–that simple, flared work of art that graced our great-aunt Zoe’s  flowered  notes–is a gift of A.N. Palmer, whose method of writing lacked the ornamentation and serifs of the Spencer method.  Palmer’s approach caught on, and millions of early 20th century Americans  were taught with the Palmer Method.

Some may remember writing each day in the early grades, first with a fat pencil on lined horizontal notebooks.

As Archaic as the Land Line Phone and Manual Typewriters. Morgan Polikoff,  a University of Southern California education professor, set out the case for letting the skill of cursive writing ride off into the sunset.  His thesis is that  today’s common curriculum programs focus on the correct skill sets to move students into an educated adulthood. In May, Polikoff published a brief article in the New York Times, entitled “Let It Die. It’s Already Dying,” and noted:

“The Common Core standards are well constructed and full of the essential skills students need to succeed in reading and writing. The architects of the standards certainly weighed the inclusion of cursive and believed there was no need to include it. Thus, educators and policymakers should resist the urge to add more skills. Doing so would simply result in a crowded, less-focused curriculum, undermining the strength of the standards.”

I understand his point, though I’m a hold-out and still send cards and letters.  As a purist, I also use a fountain pen and fine ink on quality paper.  Many state education departments agree with Polikoff’s stance that cursive writing should be retired, along with the “abacus and slide rule.”  My state of Indiana made penmanship optional in 2011.

One argument the anti-cursive folks throw out is that a signature is no longer needed in many cases.  While I delighted in signing my marriage certificate at the same courthouse where my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents also signed their names, many situations today use “e-signatures.”  PCWorld reports that the electronic signature carries the same weight as the written signature.

On the Other Hand, Why Keep Penmanship? Rep. Linden Bateman, an Idaho state legislature, started a national discussion when he pushed legislation to keep penmanship in the curriculum in Idaho.  He caught the attention of several pro-penmanship organizations, including the National Association of Handwriting Analysis foundation.  Sheila Lowe, the Foundation’s President, is also behind the national “Campaign for Cursive” program.

From the Idaho Reporter article: “[Lowe] says that recent research at the University of Washington reveals that areas of the brain having to do with learning, language and working memory “light up” during cursive writing in ways that they do not with keyboarding or printed writing:

“We do so much with keyboarding these days, but we can’t afford to lose the development that a child sustains with cursive writing,” she said.

While 40 states have eliminated formal penmanship training from their curriculum, some parents are finding ways to get their children up to speed with cursive writing and reading.  Some elementary schools even have penmanship clubs after school.

“Grandma, I found this ancient external drive with your blog on it!” Will our children find USB drives hidden in some far-away museum with our family blogs on them?

While my own child is out of grammar school, I still fall on the side that cursive writing has a place.  I understand that today’s global economy demands a curriculum that is world-class, but ‘ll still dip my Italian crystal quill into a bottle of sepia-toned platinum ink and enjoy the almost sensual pleasure of signing my name on crisp vellum.

Amy McVay Abbott is an independent journalist from the Midwest, who focuses on health and rehabilitation issues.  She is also the author of two books, both available on Amazon.com, A Piece of Her Mind (2013) and The Luxury of Daydreams (2011).  These books are collections from her popular newspaper column, The Raven Lunatic.  Follow her on Twitter @ravenonhealth or visit her website at amyabbottwrites.

 Image courtesy Amy McVay Abbott

  • Tina

    Great article, Amy!

    By the way… I learned (though my dyslexic kid) that cursive writing is a great tool for kids with dyslexia, because there is no way to turn letters around backwards. Dyslexic kids also have a lot of trouble with not enough space between words, also solved in cursive. My son worked for most of a year with an occupational therapist on cursive, but then he refused to use it in school because all the kids asked “why do you write like that?” when they were printing. Sigh. So he’s gone back to illegible chicken-scratch printing.

    Yes, I love cursive, and I will be sad to see it go.

  • Anne Born

    Love, love this! My mother earned a Palmer certificate that I have now in my family records. My personal favorites are the old marriage certificates with the signatures of the witnesses and the bride and groom. I may not have known these people who have become so important to me, but I can see their signature and I know they were there. Wonderful post!

  • Great post, Amy. I, too, still send (and like to receive) cards and letters. I believe the flowingness of it, although that isn’t a word, gives children a sense of place in what they are writing. Kalisha can only print but I would hate to see cursive be removed from our world, totally.

  • Thank you for this article! You have a great summary of recent conversations about this topic. We think cursive is COOL, and are promoting it nationally via our Campaign for Cursive website. While there are many “common sense” reasons for not teaching cursive in the schools, we believe that the benefits to children’s brain development is important. As I like to say, “I can’t remember the last time I used the Pythagorean Theorem, but my brain is much better for having learned it.”
    And I see you’re from Indiana, so of course, I’m prejudiced……terrific post!

  • My children all learned cursive. So far as I know, all kids down here are taught cursive because all my students, except a few, hand in works in cursive. Cursive is a big deal. We might as well say we shouldn’t teach students history because it happened before they were born. Knowing cursive allowed you to read your ancestor’s document. Imagine if we raised a generation unable to read the past!

    Many of the documents I need in my research are written using either “italica, cortesana or procesal” handwriting and I am no paleographer. So my options are to use only the documents that have been transcribed, enlist the services of a paleographer, or learn paleography myself. I am considering the first and last routes, and have downloaded paleography manuals and let’s see where that gets us.

    I’ve learned that even the instruments you use are important. The use of a fountain pen forces you to properly place your hand or the pen won’t write.

    And there is also the beauty of the script. Should we really lose that?

    Today I went and bought my first ink bottle. I am considering buying a better pen as my Christmas present. And learning Spencerian script.

  • I think cursive should not be taught it’s a waste of time

    • Lynne Hazlewood

      Great article! I am concerned because my 11 year old Grandson has never learned cursive writing, in fact when I asked him about it he did not even know what it was. This is amazing to me, but guess it is just part of so-called progress.

      Concerned Grandma

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread