The debate about whether cursive writing should be required learning in school has grown over the past few decades. The dominance of electronic communications and keyboard-based writing has intensified this debate. Educators, policymakers, and parents are left to wonder about the role and value of students learning to write by hand, including the development of cursive writing skills.
We have a responsibility to ask ourselves where and how it’s most crucial for learners and educators to invest their time. There’s a near endless list of activities in which students could engage. Yet, the time available for formal education is limited and must be prioritized to prepare students to meet the demands of a lifetime.
Fortunately, numerous studies have focused on the value of handwriting, including manuscript and cursive. The most compelling findings reinforce the value of students learning to form letters, having an efficient means to convey thoughts, and developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination through handwriting. There’s also evidence that learning to write offers benefits in development of reading skills. However, there’s far less compelling research regarding whether students should learn both manuscript and cursive writing.
Certainly, keyboarding removes the challenge of legibility and, depending on the technology, can support correct spelling, grammar, syntax, and other vexing aspects of handwriting. While keyboarding can be efficient, there remains value in students experiencing the process of writing by hand. Studies have shown that notetaking by hand improves memory over notetaking via a keyboard. Additionally, the act of forming and sequencing letters gives students a different relationship with writing than selecting the correct key to press. Still, there’s no doubt that writing via keyboard will continue to play a prominent role in how we communicate.
Meanwhile, instruction in cursive writing in schools has declined steadily over the past few decades. In fact, today only a minority of schools of education include instruction in how to teach cursive writing. Consequently, fewer teachers know how to teach or place a high priority on cursive writing and are spending less time teaching students to write using cursive.
With limited time, increasing accountability for learning and competing priorities, how might we think about handwriting instruction and the role it should play in learning? Four considerations seem important:
First, the research on the value of handwriting is clear. There’s value in students learning to write by hand despite advances in technology. We’re not at a point where abandoning this aspect of the curriculum appears viable or wise.
Second, since most text to which students are exposed is in the form of print, it makes sense that they at least learn to write using manuscript. The appearance of letters and words students are reading and forming are most consistent in manuscript, and confusion is likely to be minimized.
Third, if the decision is made not to provide cursive writing instruction, students still can be taught to read cursive writing. While learning to write in cursive takes considerable time and practice, learning to read cursive can be done in a relatively short time. Learning to read cursive also preserves for students access to historical documents and personal communication that is written in cursive.
Fourth, several surveys and research studies show that most older students and adults who’ve learned to write in cursive still choose to use a combination of manuscript and cursive when writing by hand. Additionally, signatures and other forms of official correspondence typically accept printed forms of handwriting, so students aren’t likely to be seriously disadvantaged by the absence of full command of cursive writing. Even if cursive is not taught, consideration might be given to introducing students to the process of connecting letters in cursive form for purposes of signatures and other specific uses.
Obviously, there also are political aspects to this decision. Learning cursive will be a strongly held value in some communities, and there may be demands that students learn to write using this approach. Certainly, local perspectives must be considered. Still, it appears clear that deciding not to teach students to write using cursive won’t seriously impair their ability to communicate and succeed in their futures.