Monday, April 08, 2013

Cursive, Anyone?

The only time I use cursive writing anymore is when I sign my name. In fact, I have rarely otherwise written in cursive since I was in junior high school, a very long time ago. I can readily read cursive, but writing it simply takes too long.

I took to writing in block letters decades ago, both for speed and legibility. With the proliferation of electronic devices, I later took to typing for the same reason. I can type so much faster than I can write. And it's so much easier to read. Besides, manipulating and sharing text is far easier in electronic format than with any kind of writing on paper.

My older children learned to write cursive. Not that they do so. They merely perfunctorily learned to do it as required by the school curriculum of the era. But my adult son informs me that he can't read cursive without great effort. Is this a problem? He can't read many handwritten documents of yore. But he doesn't see this as a big issue, given the rate with which these are being digitized into common typeface.

It has been reported that the Utah school board has voted unanimously "to recommend that handwriting and cursive be taught in schools." If approved, the board "would require instruction in cursive by the third grade." Supporters of the initiative claim to have "some real important, research-based information that cursive handwriting does help" improve "students' reading and spelling skills."

Let's stipulate that the supporters are correct that teaching students to write cursive has beneficial side effects. But at the same time, let's be honest about the fact that cursive is dying. Decreasing numbers of American adults actively write in cursive. That number will continue to decline no matter how much we force school children to learn the art.

Cursive writing was developed mainly for speed back in the day of the inkwell and quill pen. Improved writing implements and papers rendered moot many of the convenience advantages of cursive decades ago. Many students can now write just as rapidly and as legibly using block letters as they can using cursive.

While cursive might be useful for improving reading and spelling skills, similar arguments can be made in favor of teaching students Latin. We know that understanding Latin can help students grasp etymology, improve English skills, and understand math better. But society has obviously determined that these benefits simply aren't sufficient to warrant the general teaching of Latin. The language is just too irrelevant to most people's daily lives.

The same can be said of cursive writing. The relevance of the art to daily life is diminishing with each passing moment. For that reason, many school children that are coerced into writing in cursive will never do so once they escape the juvenile confines of our compulsory education system.

Consider yet another argument against teaching cursive in schools. Philip Ball writes:
"There’s something deeply peculiar about the way we teach children to play the violin. It’s a very difficult skill for them to master—getting their fingers under control, holding the bow properly, learning how to move it over the strings without scratching and slipping. But just as they are finally getting there, are beginning to feel confident, to hit the right notes, to sound a bit like the musicians they hear, we break the news to them: we’ve taught them to play left-handed, but now it’s time to do it like grown-ups do, the other way around.
"Alright, I’m fibbing. Of course we don’t teach violin that way. We wouldn’t do anything so absurd for something as important as learning an instrument, would we? No—but that’s how we teach children to write."
The moment our school children are beginning to gain rudimentary mastery over their writing skills, we destroy their progress by plunging them into a whole different methodology. For what purpose do we impose this torment? Tradition? To prove to the kids what the all-powerful state can force them to do? Or perhaps just for the sake of drudgery under the false perception that it is good for them?

"Well," some good intentioned anachronists will say, "at least they will be able to read cursive and understand historical documents." Sure. Tell that to my oldest son. He's a very smart man. He can get most historical documents in which he is interested in regular type. Why should he go to the effort of trying to decipher some ancient person's loopy handwriting—a form that only existed due to the technological shortcomings of the time?

With this kind of reasoning, one can argue that all construction apprentices should learn to master lath and plaster construction, that all automobile mechanics should become proficient at repairing Model-T Fords, and that rock climbers should certify using 1950s equipment. Valuable things could be learned from each of these endeavors, but that learning would not warrant the general teaching of these skills.

A few people might choose to become proficient in historic techniques. Some will choose to learn Latin. Some will choose to learn how to build historic dwellings. Some will learn to read ancient script. Interested experts will arise in a broad variety of historic fields. But that is hardly a reason to force everyone to learn these skills.

Perhaps you like writing in cursive, but why should you force your love of this historic skill on everyone else?

The effort to teach cursive writing to all students in this age is like standing beside a mighty river demanding that the tide stop. The stream of real life will push on heedless of our silly interventions designed to prepare our children for the jobs of yesterday. We can save ourselves (and our kids) much unnecessary frustration by stepping into the real world and dumping this cursed love of cursive.


Tom D said...

I never liked the cursive capital G or capital Q, so I use something closer to print there, but I write much faster in cursive than print. It may be dying out, but I still like it. I joke with my kids that it's the secret adult language :-).

KateGladstone said...

Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?

Adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

Cursive's cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, adds brain cells, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

So far — in this article, this thread, and elsewhere — whenever a supporter of cursive has claimed the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident when others examine the claimed support:

/1/ either the claim (of research support for cursive) provides no traceable source,


/2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is usually misrepresented by cursive's defenders as a study "comparing print-writing with cursive"),


/3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

What about signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which student produced it.

Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.


Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

/1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May - June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at

/2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September - October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at

Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at
Background on our handwriting, past and present:
3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:



(shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —

[AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
and the World Handwriting Contest