Should Cursive and Other Forms of Handwriting Be Taught in Schools?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 23, 2012 2 min read
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Depending on whether you’re using the Julian or Gregorian calendar, John Hancock either wasor was not born today, National Handwriting Day. In either case, his authoritative signature’s legacy lives on in debates about handwriting and cursive in schools. Should schools spend precious instructional time teaching handwriting? Should students learn cursive at all, or is it an outdated skill—and here’s the Hancock link—how will they sign their names if they don’t know cursive?

I wrote an article about the conversation about the role of handwriting in school, prompted by a summit on handwriting that’s happening right now at the Newseum here in Washington. The American Association of School Administratorsand Zaner-Bloser, an educational company that makes handwriting materials, are co-sponsoring Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit,” where educators, administrators, and researchers are presenting research, discussing questions of instruction, and recommending that handwriting be added to the Common Core State Standards, which currently include keyboarding but not handwriting.

They’re advocating for the addition to the Common Core because it turns out that the research leans heavily in favor of teaching handwriting. Practicing handwriting leads to an increased fluency that allows students to express their ideas without delay, researcher Steve Graham of Vanderbilt University told me. And, Graham said, while kids may be using technology outside of school, he’s found that most in-school work is still done by hand.

I also talked with Virginia Berninger, a researcher at the University of Washington, who says that teaching keyboarding is important but can’t replace handwriting. She also presented a more unified theory about why handwriting—and spelling— are developmentally important and critical to the writing process: “When we write letters, we sequence strokes. When we spell, we sequence letters. When we compose, we sequence words within sentences and then sentences within paragraphs.” These building blocks are important, Ms. Berninger said, and kids don’t pick them up by magic—they need to be actively taught and have time to practice these skills. She recommended “tune-ups” on handwriting for students long after the early elementary grades when handwriting is usually taught, and described an activity in which high school students analyzed each others’ papers for illegible sections.

Another interesting tidbit, mentioned by Steve Graham and by Judith Gustafson, a document examiner for the Internal Revenue Service, who analyzes handwriting for a living, is that people are mixing print and cursive more and more—and that people who aren’t fully taught cursive often create their own connected script in order to speed the process of writing. Ms. Gustafson said these irregular handwriting styles mean people like her need to see a larger sample of any given person’s handwriting to come to a conclusion about the authorship of a document. (For instance, if I make my capital Js in three different ways, they’ll need to see evidence of all three Js.)

Check out the article, and let us know what you think. Is handwriting still important? Is it being taught in your schools? Should it be part of the Common Core? Teachers, did you learn how to teach handwriting? Do you personally use the handwriting style you were taught, or have you created a hybrid?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.