Should schools teach cursive handwriting? The question is an impressively polarizing one in the K-12 education world.
One of the most widely cited criticisms of the Common Core State Standards is that they don’t require teaching students to write in cursive.
Some states, such as Tennessee and California, have added cursive to the standards. Louisiana appears to have gone the farthest, mandating that students get instruction in cursive every year from the 3rd through 12th grades.
Proponents of teaching cursive say students need to learn it to be able to read historical documents, such as the U.S. Constitution. Without knowing cursive, students “will be locked out of doing research with literary papers and archival collections,” Valerie Hotchkiss, a library director at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014. “They will not even be able to read their grandmother’s diary or their parents’ love letters.”
Others say cursive helps students write faster than print, and that they need it to develop a signature.
Technology Took Priority
So why didn’t the common-core writers include cursive? In a recent interview, Sue Pimentel, one of the lead writers of the English/language arts standards, explained that the decision was about priorities—and that learning to use technology took precedence.
“We thought that more and more of student communications and adult communications are via technology. And knowing how to use technology to communicate and to write was most critical for students,” she said. “The idea is you have to pick things to put in there. .... It really was a discussion.”
Anchor standard No. 6 for writing illustrates the tech focus, asking students to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”
The decision to exclude cursive was also based on feedback from teachers, according to Pimentel.
“One of the things we heard from teachers around the country—in some cases, obviously not all—was that sometimes cursive writing takes an enormous amount of instructional time,” she said. “You could be spending time on other things rather than students practicing cursive writing. It’s really a matter of emphasis.”
Pimentel points out that the K-5 language standards do require students to “print all upper- and lowercase letters,” so it’s not as if handwriting is left out of the document entirely. She also notes that states had the ability to add standards, and that adding cursive is “very legitimate.”
“For states that added it, I have no qualms,” she said.
Being able to read in cursive is important, Pimentel says. But the writers didn’t think it was a place teachers should spend a lot of time and energy.
“One of the things we were thinking is that if we put cursive writing in, there would be all this practice of forming your letters,” she said. “But if we didn’t have it in there, it wasn’t that teachers wouldn’t teach it, it’s that it wouldn’t have [as much] emphasis.”
Looking at the Research
But what does the research say about cursive? Does it back the decision not to specifically require it in the standards?
In discussing this issue, people often conflate handwriting overall—which could be in any script—with cursive.
According to Steve Graham, a professor of educational leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, who has studied writing instruction for more than 30 years, research has shown benefits for teaching and practicing handwriting generally.
Being able to handwrite quickly makes it easier for people to get their ideas on paper. Students who struggle with handwriting “may have to devote other cognitive resources to this low-level task, which takes away from other higher-level aspects of writing like thinking about how you’re going to organize a text,” he said.
Having good handwriting also helps students in school, where teacher surveys have shown the majority of writing is still done on paper. “A reasonable amount of research suggests if your handwriting is not very legible, people will form opinions about the quality of what you say,” said Graham. “The more legible paper will get higher scores for writing than the less legible paper of the same quality.”
There’s also some research that suggests people remember things better when taking notes by hand, rather than with a word processor.
Little Difference Between Print and Cursive
So what about cursive specifically? Are there reasons to write in cursive rather than print?
Not really, says Graham.
While many people say that cursive writing is faster than printing because the writer doesn’t have to lift his or her pencil from the paper, the research bears that out to be only minimally true.
“Today’s cursive scripts are not these flourishing things of yesteryear,” he said. “They’re really simple. ... If you look at the data [on speed for print and cursive], it doesn’t look that different.”
People also say that print is easier to read than cursive, but again Graham says the research isn’t definitive on this either.
“There’s not a lot of difference between how legible the two scripts are and how fast they can be produced,” he said.
Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, confirmed that print-versus-cursive finding in a 2013 article for the National Association of State Boards of Education. “No clear research evidence supports one being better than the other,” she wrote.
However, Berninger has also shown that printing, cursive, and keyboarding activate different brain patterns, and that in some cases, students with certain disabilities may struggle with print but do well with cursive.
According to a 2014 New York Times article, some researchers say cursive “may even be a path to treating dyslexia.”
Teach One or Both?
The question still remains as to what’s best practice for general classrooms.
As Graham sees it, given the many time constraints teachers have, there’s really no reason to teach more than one handwriting style.
“Schools are being asked to teach typing. Should they also be asked to teach manuscript and cursive?... We want students to be fluent and legible in at least one of these—which one doesn’t make that much difference.”
Having students learn both, he said, “seems to be inefficient and a waste of time. ... Which one of those you teach, that ought to be up to the schools and teachers.” While U.S. students traditionally begin learning to write with print letters (as the common core requires), they very well could start with cursive—as young students do in many European countries.
Berninger, on the other hand, said there’s a good case for teaching both print and cursive.
“Teaching BOTH of these handwriting formats has advantages, including learning to recognize and write letters despite small variations in letter forms sharing the same name,” she wrote in the NASBE commentary. “Consider all the fonts computer users can choose from for word processing. Apple’s Steve Jobs was an accomplished calligrapher before he became a pioneer in technology tools to support writing—and that is one of the reasons we have so many font styles to choose from in computer writing!”
Image: Students practice both printing and cursive handwriting skills at the Mountaineer Montessori School in Charleston, W.Va. —Bob Bird/AP-File
Education Week library interns Laura Zollers and Teresa Lewandowski contributed to this post.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.