When an undergraduate in her university’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library asked for help with a manuscript she was reading, library director Valerie Hotchkiss assumed it was something difficult. An obscure Latin text, perhaps, or a letter by Marcel Proust.
It turned out to be a letter by John Ruskin, and it was in English. To Hotchkiss, Ruskin’s handwriting appeared neat and clear. “What’s the problem?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t do cursive,” the student said.
Unfortunately, Hotchkiss writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, teachers and professors are looking at a whole generation of students who “don’t do cursive.” Elementary schools rarely teach cursive anymore, she argues—and even when they do, they typically cover it in only a year. After that year, students are rarely required to write in cursive again.
As an employee at a University of Illinois library, Hotchkiss is beginning to witness the consequences of declining cursive instruction. When students don’t learn to write cursive, she says, they rarely learn to read cursive, either. And when those students get to college, they won’t be able to read any historical documents that haven’t been typed up. According to Hotchkiss, it is impossible for most undergraduates to use manuscripts written between the 17th and 20th century.
“They will be locked out of doing research with literary papers and archival collections. They will not even be able to read their grandmother’s diary or their parents’ love letters,” she writes. “When the ability to read cursive disappears, our connection to history—and even to our own past—is lost.”
Looking at the data, it’s clear that cursive instruction is declining—but it hasn’t disappeared. According to a recent national survey, 65 percent of 2nd grade teachers were teaching cursive last year. For 3rd grade teachers, that number jumps to 90 percent. And as we wrote earlier this year, some states are actually starting to reincorporate cursive instruction to their standards or supplementary expectations.
But even though most schools are teaching cursive—at least for a year or two—the Common Core State Standards don’t mention it at all. And according to a 2010 study, cursive instruction has been declining across the country since the 1970s.
Hotchkiss wants to change that. This summer, children ages 8 to 11 near Hotchkiss’ Illinois library will attend Camp Cursive, where they will learn to write in cursive and read manuscripts by famous authors.
“Special Collections libraries may not seem like the most obvious place for the 8-to-11 crowd, but as the caretakers of primary sources we feel that we must do something,” Hotchkiss writes. “If our educational system produces another generation of students unable to read cursive, miles of archival documents and literary papers will go unread and unstudied.”
Hotchkiss also points to studies on the benefits of writing by hand—like improved memory, language fluency, physical coordination, and socialization. Students who write by hand have better attention spans, and those who write more quickly retain more information, she says. And according to the College Board, students who write their SAT essays in cursive score slightly higher than those who write their essays in print.
Children at Camp Cursive will learn to develop their signatures, mix recipes for invisible ink, and compete to win fountain pens.
Soon after registration opened, every spot was taken.
Image: An important thing written in cursive.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.