On October 13, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill making cursive handwriting instruction mandatory in 1st through 6th grades. The legislation passed this year, but it could have just as easily made news nearly 200 years ago. In 1850, cursive writing was first introduced widely in schools, developed “based on fluid movements observed in nature,” according to the National Museum of American History.
The irony is that this push for cursive comes at a time when technological advances like laptops and other electronic devices have made keyboard-operated text communication quick, efficient, and widely available to K-12 students. An increasing number of states—California is only the most recent—are attempting to reintroduce the loopy, artistic form of cursive writing into curriculum standards. Here’s a look at how we got, or rather returned, here.
Common core standards pushed out cursive
Launched in 2010, the Common Core State Standards outlined specific skills in English/language arts and mathematics in an effort to bring some national cohesion to K-12 instruction. The standards don’t expressly mention cursive writing. They do, however, refer explicitly to keyboard skills in grades 3 through 5. For instance, the common-core standards expect 4th graders to “demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.”
By the mid-2010s, as many as 46 states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards. Consequently, cursive writing instruction waned. But within the past decade, statewide cursive requirements have been trending upward.
In 2016, 14 states required schools to teach cursive writing. During the 2018-2019 school year, that number jumped to 19. Currently, 21 states require some sort of cursive handwriting instruction, according to mycursive.com, a website that tracks cursive writing requirements nationwide.
Tracking state-by-state keyboarding requirements proves more difficult, according to the Education Commission of the States, a research clearinghouse, which has identified only four states that include keyboarding in state standards or graduation requirements: New York, Utah, South Carolina, and Texas.
The cursive comeback: a backlash to technology?
The renewed interest in cursive writing seems to be both in spite of the growing availability of advanced communication technology powered by artificial intelligence and because of it.
For instance, ensuring that students can read historical documents written in cursive tops the list of arguments that advocates of cursive make for its inclusion in the K-12 curriculum. California Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a former teacher of 30 years, made this point in a press conference about the recent California cursive bill that she authored.
“A lot of the historical documents going back two or three decades are actually in cursive,” she told the Sacramento Bee. Students need to be able to read them, she said.
But technological advances challenge such arguments. For instance, companies like Transkribus use artificial intelligence to transcribe documents in cursive, thereby making handwritten historical records accessible to students.
Similarly, advanced technology makes it possible to identify people using methods such as facial recognition, invalidating the notion of cursive signatures as essential unique identifiers. That argument has been made by cursive advocates such as Dickie Drake, a Republican state representative in Alabama who introduced a bill requiring schools in that state to teach cursive writing. The bill became law in 2016. “I think your cursive writing identifies you as much as your physical features do,” Drake told The New York Times.
But technology-driven cheating—from ‘lifting’ passages directly from online text to using ChatGPT to complete assignments—is a concern of teachers, as recent survey data indicate. On social media, some educators see a return to cursive writing as a way to combat these tech-heavy forms of cheating:
“Particularly in an age when AI gives such easy access to plagiarism, the ability to write one’s own thoughts down in handwriting (sans computer technology) seems pretty important. I see more teachers going back to handwritten, in-class assessments for this very reason. The ability to write fluently on paper will never be obsolete.”
This comment came in response to a nonscientific Education Week LinkedIn poll asking educators whether they think cursive writing or keyboarding should take priority for elementary-age students. Within two days of posting the poll, 1,545 educators had responded: 43 percent in favor of cursive and 57 percent in favor of keyboarding. Some placed equal weight on both skills:
“There should be a choice for both since they’re both equally important. We live in an age where keyboarding skills are important but learning cursive engages the brain in a different way than printing.”
Research supports cursive
The positive response rate to the Linkedin survey indicates how strongly educators feel about cursive writing. A robust body of research extolling its benefits may explain why.
Researchers have credited learning how to write in cursive with an array of benefits for young students—from building fine motor skills to stimulating and creating synergies between different hemispheres of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory.
These evidence-based benefits of learning how to write in cursive are powerful. But that doesn’t make cursive writing easy to implement in the classroom setting.
Even before the common-core standards were introduced and cursive handwriting was a foundational aspect of many elementary school curricula, time-strapped teachers reported challenges teaching it. In a survey of elementary education teachers in the early 2000s, fewer than half of respondents indicated that the speed of handwriting allowed students to keep up with classroom demands, and just 12 percent of respondents agreed that they had received adequate preparation to teach handwriting in their college classes.
How will teachers manage to reintroduce cursive writing into the classroom, especially as additional competing requirements like teaching keyboarding vie for instructional time? Just like writing those loopy capital cursive letters, it will take time, perseverance, and practice.