Should Young People Still Learn Handwriting and Cursive in School?

My family and I went to Williamburg, Virginia a few weeks ago. As we walked from house to house, learning about the beliefs, practices, and perils of colonial America, I often saw eighteenth century documents sitting on the tables for visitors to view. It was not easy to work through the creative spelling of the eighteenth century, but with a little time and effort, I could make sense of the words enough to share a few ideas with my son.

At one point, a man next to me declared that he is a second grade teacher, and he is proud to be one of the few teachers who never stopped teaching students how to write in cursive. After all, how would they be able to read some of the most important documents in our nation’s history if they could not at least read cursive?

Debates about the future of handwriting (and cursive more specifically) has grown ever since keyboarding demanded a space in the school experience. Proponents of handwriting defend their stance in many ways, and advocates for burying the practice of cursive or handwriting at large have a response to each one.

Defense of Handwriting and Cursive #1 – Handwriting, especially cursive, is necessary for maintaining a close connection to our founding documents and American history, including the recent past.

Response #1 – You do not need to be able to write cursive to read it. At most, it only takes a few days, sometimes even just a handful of hours, to teach someone how to read cursive.

Defense of Handwriting and Cursive #2 – What will come of the wonderfully personal handwritten cards and letters of the present and past?

Response #2 – This is already an increasingly uncommon practice today. It will probably fade away, but something else will take its place. Besides, people can still teach themselves cursive outside of school or on their own.

Defense of Handwriting and Cursive #3 – The fine motor skills associated with learning handwriting and cursive are an important part of early brain development, not unlike the benefits that come from learning a new instrument. There are other developmental benefits as well.

Response #3 – This is one positive result of handwriting in the literature, but even the comparison to learning a new instrument shows that there are multiple ways to achieve such benefits.

It is an interesting debate and I see convincing arguments on both sides of the issue. There can be benefits and there are other ways of looking at it, but I offer the following questions for consideration and reflection about the matter.

  1. Common Core does not mention cursive after second grade. For those schools that have reshaped what they do according to the CCSS, this seems to be at least one nail in the coffin of cursive.
  2. Why not involve students in researching this question and deciding for themselves? This could make for a fascinating journey into the past and exploration of communication. Even as I write this, I could see a fascinating game-based learning experience created to set this up.
  3. What, as a culture, do we value about handwriting and cursive? Who values in and who does not? Why?
  4. Who are the winners and losers if we keep teaching cursive? What about if we stop?
  5. Right now we are in a middle time for this issue. If you cannot write, it can still be a disadvantage in some situations, but how quickly is this changing?
  6. What is the role of handwriting outside of school today? Who uses it? Who does not? How is this changing and why?
  7. What are the similarities and differences between handwriting and cursive? These are obviously not the same, so our answer to the above questions might be different when we are talking about learning to print versus learning to write in cursive.
  8. Maria Montessori and many others write about the value of learning handwriting for children. If we are indeed moving away from this, what are the research needs and gaps on this subject?

One Reply to “Should Young People Still Learn Handwriting and Cursive in School?”

  1. Tim Schumacher

    This happened to be a topic for a discussion I led with my graduate students online this week. A poll among the students was spread across the board from keeping cursive to dropping it. When I then framed it with a statement about 21st Century education that learning needs to be real, creative, and relevant (from the book “Literacy Is Not Enough”), the consensus tilted toward dropping it. I think it depends greatly on your vision and goals for the future of education – and it wouldn’t surprise me if for the next generation or two, it still gets taught somewhere at some level.

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