What Happened to Cursive Handwriting?
By Anne Pritchett, Member of the BAT Leadership Team & Missouri BATs
AFT Teacher Leaders Program
When my mother went to 1st grade in the 1930s, she was taught to write in cursive. She had not gone to kindergarten, as it was not widely available yet. Early childhood programs were not common either so when she walked into that 1st grade classroom, this was her first school experience. My grandmother told me years later that it was thought to be very up to date to teach cursive handwriting and not manuscript. She was very excited to see my mother, her oldest child, receive such a progressive education. My mother grew up to become a legal secretary who knew shorthand and she was the fastest typist I have ever seen. She also had absolutely beautiful handwriting.
Years later when I was in the 2nd grade, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. My mother said that was a good thing because she needed to learn to print and I could teach her. There were often forms for school that my sisters or I needed to have our parents complete and my mother was unable to fill them out because she had never learned to print. So that evening, my mother and I sat down at the dining room table with a Big Chief tablet and I tried to teach her to print the letters of the alphabet. After a few frustrating tutoring sessions, I figured out that teaching wasn’t as easy as I had thought. My mother and I finally decided to work on printing only the capital letters. So for the rest of her life, anytime she had to print she did so in all caps.
When I was in elementary school, we were taught to print in kindergarten. I can still remember how hard it was. At the end of 1st grade I was still struggling. I realize now that my fine motor development was just a bit behind my peers. But as a 1st grader, I was very frustrated by how difficult it was to make the letters on my paper look as nice as the ones my teacher modeled on the chalkboard. My teacher was also concerned and suggested to my parents that I repeat 1st grade because I was struggling with handwriting. They insisted that wasn’t a good reason to hold me back, besides I could read and I was pretty good at math so the school reluctantly let me go on to 2nd grade, where I eventually mastered the art of printing in manuscript. The transition to cursive which they taught us in 3rd grade was easy. The memories of my struggle to learn to print were fresh and I was motivated to master cursive and be better at it than anyone else in my class. The added bonus was we were allowed to use fountain pens when our teachers decided we could write in cursive. So I spent literally hours at night after I finished my homework practicing the cursive alphabet. By the time I was in 5th grade, my teacher let me write the homework assignments on the board every day because I had such good handwriting. When I was in high school and college, note taking in class was simple for me because I had spent so many hours perfecting my cursive handwriting. In my elementary teacher classes in college, we had to show competency in every subject taught in elementary school. I aced the handwriting test.
By the time I became an elementary teacher, the standard practice for teaching handwriting was pretty much the same as when I had been a student. Teach printing in the early grades, start them on cursive in 3rd grade and then perfect that skill in 4th grade. When computers were first brought into our classrooms, teachers talked about the need to add keyboarding to the skills we taught our kids. But we never imagined that we would some day not teach the children to write in cursive.
As computers became more of a fixture in education, we spent less time teaching any handwriting. School districts stopped buying handwriting materials. Then No Child Left Behind mandated an obsession with standardized testing of Reading and Math and we stopped teaching cursive handwriting. There was no time for it in our busy test focused schedule. When Common Core Standards were brought to us, I don’t believe any elementary teacher was surprised that there was no mention of handwriting in the standards. Many of us were disappointed, but few expected cursive to be included.
But was this really a good decision? I remembered learning in college that fine motor skill development was an important process for children. I also remembered my struggles to learn to write and wondered if my own academic skill development may have been different if I had never been taught to write in cursive.
I had so many questions. Didn’t our children need to learn to sign their names? Would they never need to write anything down? What about reading historical documents written in cursive? Or family letters? I was looking at family pictures not long ago and my father had taken the time to write the date and names of everyone on the back of each picture. In cursive. What if my own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were unable to read what my father had written because they had never learned cursive writing? The need for this skill went beyond the importance of writing fast so you could take notes in a class. In order to know our own history, we needed to know how to write and read in cursive.
I surveyed teachers to get more information. The teachers were asked 6 questions:
- Do your students know how to write in cursive?
- Do your students know how to read cursive handwriting?
- Do you think your students should learn cursive writing?
- Do you teach cursive writing?
- Is cursive writing a part of your district curriculum?
- Have any of your students asked you to teach them to write in cursive?
Overwhelmingly, the teachers responded that their students could not write in cursive and they do not teach it but believe it should be taught.
Some of the comments:
“I think cursive is art. It makes words come alive. Teaching cursive, teaching a form of creativity, is imperative to learning.“
“It's a lost art. How will our students read historical documents or sign their name if they can't read and write in cursive?”
“I teach it but need more time in my day for practice. Unfortunately it is not a priority since they took handwriting off our report cards. I have seen a huge drop in neatness.”
“I believe the tactile learning of the letters again helps with development in other areas.
Unfortunately, due to the climate surrounding testing, I am only able to teach it in the final 2 months of the school year after testing has been completed. Interestingly, and sadly, I am one of only two teachers who finds it worthwhile to teach cursive writing in my school.”
“It has become extinct. I think that's horrible.”
My research led to a surprising find. There is not much research into cursive writing and its importance (or not) in our school curriculum. It was never a controversial topic in education. The debate was about Zaner Bloser versus D’Nealian. We didn’t talk about not teaching cursive at all. Then all of a sudden, it was just gone. But why? And why was no one concerned? I did find that in 2013, researchers at Princeton and UCLA reported that “even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” In three studies, they found that “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” They noted that since typing is faster, students tended to take more notes but when taking notes by hand, they were forced to condense the information and note only key points, which is a better and more efficient way to learn new material. A professor at the University of Washington found that elementary students wrote more words, wrote faster and expressed more original thoughts when they wrote by hand than when they used a keyboard.
These studies validate what I have told my students for years. When you write, you are sending and receiving messages to and from your brain. I teach students with specific learning disabilities. Handwriting can be very difficult for many of them. Putting words and thoughts on paper is also difficult for most of my students. Many struggled to learn to write in manuscript and are reluctant to learn cursive. So most of them print. Many adults who were diagnosed as having learning disabilities as children have never mastered cursive writing. Special education teachers applauded the plan to teach keyboarding skills to these students. But now I wonder if we should have tried harder to teach them to write in cursive. That whole brain connection thing seems kind of important now.
Turn on the TV, open a magazine or look at a website on the internet. Cursive is still very much a part of our culture.
And cursive has been part of our culture for a long time.
Fortunately, in Missouri, after the state legislature banned Common Core in our schools, the state department of education in April, 2016 decided to add cursive handwriting to the English Language Arts standards in 2nd and 3rd grade. So under the new Missouri Learning Standards, our children will be learning to read and write cursive.
Is cursive handwriting an essential skill? Most of the teachers I surveyed feel that it is. Researchers have connected the use of cursive writing to increased learning outcomes. So what happened to cursive handwriting? Most elementary classrooms don’t even have cursive alphabets on the wall anymore. The excitement of bringing technology into our classrooms and the need to teach kids to type pushed cursive writing to the side. No Child Left Behind led to a test prep take over of our lesson plans, leaving no time for cursive handwriting The Common Core State Standards ignored handwriting entirely.
The result is a generation of children who can type better than we ever imagined they would, but they can’t sign their names. Was eliminating cursive handwriting a good idea? I believe most teachers think cursive is an essential skill and want to see it returned to our elementary classrooms. Has Missouri done the right thing by bringing cursive back? We will find out soon enough.
AFT Teacher Leaders Program
When did schools stop teaching cursive handwriting? And is this related in any way to the fact that kids today don't know how to hold a pen properly? (August, 2011)
Why Writing By Hand Could Make You Smarter (March, 2013)
Handwriting nears end of line as US schools stop teaching it (April, 2013)
The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard; Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking
Cursive Handwriting Will No Longer Be Taught in Schools Because It’s a Big, Old Waste of Time (November, 2013) http://www.eonline.com/news/481596/cursive-handwriting-will-no-longer-be-taught-in-schools-because-it-s-a-big-old-waste-of-time
Cursive Handwriting: How Important Is It? (2013)
Here's Why Writing Things Out By Hand Makes You Smarter (December, 2014)
Ten Reasons People Still Need Cursive (February, 2015)
Teaching cursive handwriting is an outdated waste of time (February, 2015)
Cursive No More? (March, 2015)
Cursive comeback? After outcry, handwriting lessons return to some schools (September, 2015)
Washington bill would require teaching cursive in schools (January, 2016)
Biological and Psychology Benefits of Learning Cursive (April, 2016)
Bill Requiring Cursive Writing Passes Senate (January, 2016)
Should students be required to learn cursive handwriting?
Does Cursive Still Matter for Children? (February, 2016)
Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away (April, 2016)
Handwriting study finds clues on when biblical texts written (April, 2016)
Should schools stop teaching cursive writing?
From MO Learning Standards (April, 2016):
“In written text, write legibly (print, cursive)”