The Dying Art of Cursive Writing

I remember learning cursive in 2nd grade comparing the cursive ‘r’ to the print ‘r’ and thinking I’ll never figure this out. Then the teachers would write in cursive on the blackboard as cleanly and beautifully as was in the workbook and I wondered when will I ever gain such command over cursive?

These days, students needn’t worry about such things. With the arrival of the Common Core curriculum, cursive will no longer be taught within the national curriculum. Nor will spelling. The underlying assumption behind these curriculum decisions is we’re now in the world of technology. Practically speaking these skills are going the way of the Dodo Bird. Even in primary schools that teach cursive, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc, a publisher of cursive curricula, most spend under an hour a week teaching cursive. Yet, step back for a moment and contemplate what it is we’re losing by dispensing with cursive altogether.

Recently in a Tennessee high school, the students in an AP US History class couldn’t read the instructor’s notes, which were written in cursive. Cursive illiteracy might not seem too disturbing until you start to contemplate what it means. If a student wished to review the original founding documents of this country: the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution (sadly, 90-95% of the people in the united states have no idea what freedoms are guaranteed under the first amendment, fewer still even realize that the Constitution is the law of the land—but that’s a separate matter anyway) she couldn’t.

Now contemplate getting a love letter (though maybe today they are love instant messages, or instagrams…) printed out in block letters with portions egregiously misspelled. Cursive has aesthetic prowess in matters of the heart that really can’t be matched by a technology. Interestingly, in the 1970s and 1980s, Middlebury College required that all applicants handwrite their applications. The assumption was that the admissions office had the applications analyzed by graphologists to gain a sense of an applicant’s temperament, disposition, and open- mindedness. Possibly this is apocryphal; regardless, no one today in the world of digital applications is encouraging handwritten applications.

Then there is the issue of signing a name instead of printing a signature. Jack Lew, the current Secretary of the Treasury, had a particularly hard time signing his name on the currency. After seeing his signature, President Obama remarked, we assume tongue in cheek, “I had never noticed Jack's signature, and ... when this was highlighted yesterday in the press, I considered rescinding my offer to appoint him.” 

Cursive is more than display or a signature on a document: extensive research strongly indicates that cursive contributes to cognitive development. Cursive incorporates sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging shows different parts of the brain are activated when writing in cursive that are not stimulated by typing. Research conducted by Indiana University further indicates that writing produced ‘robust activation…in both hemispheres of the brain.’ (Psychology Today, ‘Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter,’ by William Klemm)

The College Board discovered that students who wrote in cursive for the essay portion of the SAT scored slightly higher than those who printed. In fact, many writing programs emphasize that if you run up against a prompt on the SAT that stumps your creative flow, just start writing down ideas to the prompt, or merely scribble out the prompt, and the mind will engage and ideas will flow.

The entire field of ‘haptics’ incorporates touch, hand movements and their effect on brain function. Cursive writing is known to integrate the brain with sight, touch, and movement. The gains from cursive writing are similar to learning a musical instrument.  

Beyond the cognitive research, the importance of cursive in allowing students to fluently and eloquently express themselves without technological intervention is invaluable. Writing a letter of complaint, or sending a personal note in a strong cursive hand is far more engaging than a twit or a text. It is a shame to see the power cursive fall into neglect to the point in which placing your John Hancock on a document will shortly hold no meaning.