Cursive: irrelevant, obsolete, or super smart?

Cursive writing, also sometimes called script or in the U.K., joined-up writing, is at the heart of heated debate. The Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states, focus on testable, measurable skills and leave it up to individual states to decide about including cursive in the curriculum. In 2011, Indiana became one of the first states to eliminate cursive from the curriculum; however, early this year a bill approved by the Indiana state Senate would require schools to teach it.

Search the word on the New York Times website, and more than 1,700 entries emerge. Judith Thurman, in a July 2012 opinion piece for Atlantic Monthly, wrote compellingly of a time when virtually no one will be able to decipher, in their original form, historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence, penned in cursive. It’s an especially fine example, since as of 1977, National Handwriting Day in the U.S., is January 23—John Hancock’s birthday. While elegant handwriting was once a status symbol, pundits and parents now also ponder a time—perhaps in the not-so-distant future—when older children will be unable even to read or understand their own grandparents’ (or anyone else’s) cursive writing. In 2012 NPR interviewed Phillip Hensher, novelist, critic, and journalist, about his book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, in which he explores the personal and precious idiosyncracies of script, and the way people’s handwriting helps us know and recognize them. As Amazon describes the book, “Hensher pays tribute to the warmth and personality of the handwritten love note, postcards sent home, and daily diary entries.”

For many reasons beyond the sentimental, we should think carefully about whether we want to do away with cursive—the ability to both read and write it—for future generations. According to the Los Angeles Times, California, Alabama, and Georgia have required cursive in early-grade requirements. On March 14, William Kleem, D.V.M., Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Texas A & M University wrote a Psychology Today column titled “What Learning Cursive Does for Your Brain: Cursive Writing Makes Kids Smarter.” In it he cites multiple research studies suggesting the benefits of learning cursive handwriting go well beyond everyday communication and are neither replicated nor fully replaced by keyboarding. He writes that “”In the case of learning cursive writing, the brain develops functional specialization that integrates…sensation, movement control, and thinking.” He also notes that “Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that do not participate in keyboarding” and that areas of the brain linked to reading are activated during handwriting but not during typing. He concludes that “The benefits to brain development are similar to what you get with learning to play a musical instrument.”

Yes, putting our “John Hancock” on a signature line may not always be the standard. For now, some school districts will continue teaching cursive, and others will phase it out. Either way, parents can teach and encourage cursive handwriting, both by modeling it and by using supplemental learning materials.