Cursive handwriting disappearing from schools

by T. Rees Shapiro

The Washington Post

The curlicue letters of cursive handwriting, once considered a mainstay of American elementary education, have been slowly disappearing from classrooms for years. Now, with most states adopting new national standards that don’t require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated at most public schools.

For many students, cursive is becoming as foreign as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. In college lecture halls, more students take notes on laptops and tablet computers than with pens and notepads. Responding to handwritten letters from grandparents in cursive is no longer necessary as they, too, learn how to use email, Facebook and Skype.

And educators, seeking to prepare students for a successful future in which computer and typing skills have usurped penmanship, are finding cursive’s relevance waning, especially with leaner school budgets and curricula packed with standardized testing prep. So they’re opting not to teach it anymore.

“It’s seeing the writing on the wall,” said Patricia Granada, principal at Eagle View Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia. “Cursive is increasingly becoming obsolete.”

Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the largest teachers union in the county, called cursive “a dying art.”

“Cursive writing is a traditional skill that has been replaced with technology,” Hairston said. “Educators are having to make choices about what they teach with a limited amount of time and little or no flexibility. Much of their instructional time is consumed with teaching to a standardized test.”

Since 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, which do not require cursive instruction but leave it up to the individual states and districts to decide whether they want to teach it. A report the same year by the Miami-Dade public school system found that cursive instruction has been slowly declining nationwide since the 1970s.

Proponents of cursive say that many of the country’s historical documents were written in the fancy script, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They say that future historians who lack the ability to read cursive might not be able to study original historical documents.

Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive. “I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I read the Constitution,” Graham said. “The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s.”

He said that today’s teachers value typing more than handwriting and that by the 12th grade, about half of all papers are composed on computers.

“When you think about the world in the 1950s, everything was by hand. Paper and pencil,” Graham said. “Right now, it’s a hybrid world.”

Graham said the argument for keeping cursive around centers more on tradition than practicality.

“What I typically hear for keeping cursive is how nice it is when you receive a beautifully cursive-written letter. It’s like a work of art,” Graham said. “It’s pretty, but is that a reason for keeping something, given that we do less and less of those kinds of cards anymore?”

Deborah Spear, an academic therapist based in Great Falls, Virginia, said cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.

“You will find people who say, ‘Why teach cursive anymore because we have keyboarding,’ ” said Spear, who taught special education in Fairfax, Virginia, before starting her own business in 2009. “They’ll say, ‘Who cares if my kid can read Grandma’s letters when Grandma is beginning to Skype anyway.’ Yes, needing to read cursive is greatly diminishing in our society, but it’s still very applicable as an instructional tool.”

Several states have tried to resurrect cursive writing. California, Georgia and Massachusetts have laws mandating cursive instruction, and in March, legislators in Idaho passed a bill instructing the state Board of Education to include cursive in the curriculum.

Some experts contend that nice handwriting can lead to better grades in school. Laura Dinehart, an education professor at Florida International University, recently conducted a study that found that children with neater handwriting developed better reading and math skills than their chicken-scratch peers.

  • Nazonohito

    I stopped using cursive back in the late ’70s~early ’80s… Basically because I’ve always been more comfortable with block print. Today, I couldn’t write a full letter in cursive if my life depended on it–but I can still read it! While I agree it’s unnecessary to teach how to correctly write cursive in today’s world, I still see being able to read cursive writing as a valuable skill to teach children. Additionally, unlike Japan and the “hanko”, in Western countries most peoples’ signatures are at least based on a form of cursive. So, I wonder what effect the decision not to teach cursive any more will have on that.

    • Mark Garrett

      Exactly. It’s important to know how to read it, just like it’s important to be able to read kanji, but teaching how to write it isn’t.

      As far as signatures go, I can’t read three quarters of people’s.
      They’ve become more art than writing.

  • Mark Garrett

    I’ve been predicting this for at least a couple of years now. I think spending countless hours learning stroke order of kanji needs to go next. If you’re studying English or Japanese as a major then it’s important to know, but for young people today with so many options in life, there are far greater tools they can learn, for instance coding.

  • Roan Suda

    I try to see this in relativistic terms. In Germany, the elegant Frakturschrift of old, esp. In cursive form, has long since been abandoned. In Japan, younger people cannot read many unabbreviated kanji. I was taught penmanship but cannot write half as elegantly as my grandparents did. Life and language change. Still, it pains me to see supposedly educated English speakers writing notes in a haphazard mixture of capital letters and small letters, as though there were no rules, with gross spelling mistakes. That’s really the problem: not technological advance but rather advanced dumbing-down.

  • SwedishreaderKristinehamn93

    If the education system says that handwriting shouldn’t exists on language class and the cursive writing style is more like an art, then teach it in art class as viewing the conections between the writing charathers and pictures. You can also introduce it as writing art (art with any writing charathers written in a way they are more like a piece of art than a way to write a text with expression of feelings and bound to the writing rules (handwirtten)). You teach then more art than how to write by hand.

    May have written in thier comment of the Japanese charathers and most of the Asian languages are the same. Take only Japanese for example, no matter how you see the charathers if you can’t read it it’s a piece of art. Art can be every thing around you. Art can be so simple as write a letter or read the charathers in the word.

  • http://www.facebook.com/edda.manley.1 Edda Manley

    Today we have teachers who are no longer able to read cursive handwriting. We are also now hearing teachers complain that they no longer can read the messy printing far too many students produce. Printing, which has been taught for less than 100 years, will be next to be eliminated from the curriculum. One thing has remained true throughout the over 2,000 years that people have been able to write: people could write have always been in a better position than those who could not write by hand. Private schools know this and continue to teach cursive, many European countries and all the Latin based language countries do as well. That’s the global competition for jobs for the public school educated children.