Revisiting the Cursive Writing Debate

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Several months ago, we examined the debate around whether students should be required to learn cursive writing. Consider that we have experienced a decades long decline in the use of cursive writing by the general population. Relatively few teacher preparation institutions still provide instruction in how to teach cursive writing. In addition, there exists scant research that points to any significant added benefit to learning cursive beyond what is experienced with learning manuscript writing. Still, a growing number of states, particularly in the South, are legislating the teaching of cursive writing for all students beginning as early as second grade.

The argument about the learning value of the time investment required to teach cursive writing seems clear. Teaching students to be proficient cursive writers is a lengthy task. Meanwhile, learning to read cursive writing, a skill that gives students access to historic documents and notes from grandparents, takes only a couple of hours. Further, most adults who were taught cursive, actually write using a combination of cursive and manuscript.

As recently as three generations ago, we might have made the argument that the formation and flow of cursive letters and words conveyed a portion of the impression the writer presented to the reader. Today, the organization and content of correspondence still matters, but an exceedingly small amount of formal correspondence is conducted using cursive writing.

What is new in the debate surrounding the teaching of cursive writing seems to be the injection of politics and patriotism as reasons to maintain. For example, some recent state legislative debates have equated students not learning cursive writing with the loss of knowledge of our history, as students are deprived of the skills necessary to read documents that are important to our nation’s founding. Yet, the style of handwriting used to generate many of these documents is difficult, if not impossible to read, for even accomplished cursive writers. Further, all of these documents are available in transcribed, print form.

Underlying the resurgence of demands to teach cursive writing also seems to be a fear of change and sense of loss related to what is familiar in schools and life. These feelings are natural. So much is changing in our world, so quickly that it can be disorienting and unsettling.

Still, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves where and how it is most crucial for learners and educators to invest their time together. There is a near endless list of activities in which they could engage. Yet, the time available for formal education is limited and must prepare students for a lifetime.

Clearly, students need to develop the skills necessary to be agile, accomplished learners. That they need to clearly convey their thinking in forms that are accessible to others is beyond debate. They need to be able to listen and understand the perspectives of others. They also need an understanding of mathematics, science, and the arts. The list goes on.

A key question is whether becoming a skilled cursive writer should supersede other crucial skills to prepare today’s learners for their future. Who is monitoring whether there is time to teach all that is mandated? If cursive writing instruction is to be required of all students, what should be dropped from the learning agenda because it does not offer equal value to this skill? Is it enough to offer students the opportunity to learn cursive writing in voluntary settings?

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