How Long Will We Teach Cursive Handwriting?

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Schools are often in a reactive mode to societal changes in technology, popular customs, and politics. We adjust our policies and curriculum based on this changing tide.

For example, I am asked regularly about the potential demise of cursive handwriting instruction in my school. This issue was highlighted recently in the trial of George Zimmerman when a witness admitted that she couldn’t read cursive. Many were shocked and outraged. But should we have been?

Adults are handwriting less and less. With the rise of tablets and smart phones, we scribe our grocery list on a smartphone memo program, take notes for our personal improvement seminar on our tablet, and complete the taxes using “Turbotax” on the desktop. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the process of handwriting but we find the use of new technology more efficient. Studies show that only 15 percent of adults use cursive after high school.

Should schools allot precious instructional time for the purpose of training students in the art of cursive handwriting? With a school year of 180 days, minus lunch and recess, elementary school students have less than 1000 hours of instruction a year. Put a half hour a day in there for handwriting, and we’re down to 900 hours.

The newly adopted Common Core State Standards are not helping the pro-handwriting cause. The Standards contain no instructions whatsoever regarding cursive handwriting which suggests that it may not survive the onslaught of digital technology.

Barbara Miller, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children says,

“Schools are reflective of our society in general. We spend less time doing things like writing notes to each other, since there are other tools available to use to communicate and curriculums need to reflect that”.

Only 11 states have amended their state guidelines to include cursive handwriting.

As you might expect in our field, there is a broad continuum of opinion on this subject. There are those that bemoan the current state of handwriting and pine for us to learn the “Italic” method as a practical compromise.  Others, such as Morgan Polikoff, a Professor of Education at USC, believe that we should let cursive handwriting instruction “die” due to the “small proportion of adults (who) use cursive for their day-to-day writing”. Cursive should go the way of the abacus and the slide rule he says.

There is some evidence that suggests that the art of cursive handwriting contributes to a child’s literacy development. Occupational Therapist Suzanne Baruch Asherson believes that putting pen to paper stimulates the brain and improves synchronicity between the hemispheres. There is a famous study that suggests that those who write in cursive on the SAT actually score slightly better than those who don’t.

Thus, there are many factors at play here. Schools do need additional instructional time more than ever due to the advent of the Common Core. As my Superintendent says, time is the currency of school improvement, and we have to maximize our instruction in a six and a half hour day. We have to have the courage to subtract elements from our curriculum when it is much easier to add.

We will lose something when we eliminate cursive handwriting from our curriculum. When we moved from the slide rule to the calculator, we lost the ability to see math algorithms completed in a more graphics based fashion. My own understanding of math took a leap when I was part of a mini-course on sliderules back in middle school. The abacus likely provided some of the same advantages. I am also certain that the process of cursive handwriting for many students solidifies both spelling and vocabulary skills.

But there are many advantages of digital writing.

A study released last month demonstrated the advantages of using track changes as a way to provide feedback to students. Likewise, a Canadian study highlighted computers as tools to “extend and support the teaching of mini-lessons” in writing. Student blogging has been shown to be a strong motivator, not only in articulating one’s own thoughts but also in building interest to read others’ writing.

Regardless of what we are gaining by focusing on digital writing and what we are losing by abandoning the teaching of cursive, the change is inevitable. There will always be experts who will be able to write and interpret cursive handwriting. It is up to schools to have some foresight and make conscious decisions when the time is right to put aside the teaching of cursive while still respecting those who hold on to a declining tradition.

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