Is cursive writing obsolete?

Writing as Art
A letter home during the Civil War from John V. Harrington of the 3rd Delaware Infantry to his brother-in-law James Vickers
A letter home during the Civil War from John V. Harrington of the 3rd Delaware Infantry to his brother-in-law James Vickers
Photo courtesy of Delaware Public Archives

When kids start learning cursive, which is typically around third grade, it's kind of a big deal for them. First-graders and second-graders print. Third-graders write. The fluid, fancy letters and words are a sign of growing up. It's how mommy writes.

Of course, these days, it may not be how mommy writes. But the "rite of passage" aspect of learning cursive remains a fairly strong force in the 9-year-old crowd. It holds value as a longstanding component of the curriculum.

It's also a dynamic cultural element. Cursive writing changes with the times, so a third grader in the 1960s learned a different style from a third grader in 1990s. It tends to reflect cultural values. Eighteenth-century Puritans wrote a version that eliminated unnecessary frills. In the 19th century, American script was fluid and loopy. The 20th century found Americans writing a cursive form that was far more utilitarian. In the 1990s, cursive became even more pared down, which is the style most kids are learning now [source: Suddath].

It becomes a bit harder to argue for cursive's obsolescence viewed through the window of cultural evolution. If cursive has no place, does that mean our culture has reached a point of such high-tech anonymity that variations in handwriting no longer matter? (Where will all the handwriting analysts go?)

But perhaps the greatest argument against the abandonment of cursive is far less philosophical than rites of passage and cultural reflectivity, and this is the point on which many teachers and other experts get stuck: Learning how to write is a crucial component in learning how to learn. The focus on cursive in and around third grade reflects the developmental connection between writing and thinking. The two don't become truly separated until later. Children who excel in handwriting skills tend also to excel in other academic pursuits [source: Kelley]. Cursive writing assists in the development of fine motor skills and muscle control, and it's an introduction to self-expression [source: Breen]. To abandon handwriting lessons is potentially to interfere with the learning process as a whole. Not to mention that it's faster to write something in cursive than to print.

Is cursive handwriting dead? Not yet. A 2013 survey of U.S. teachers by school-supply company Really Good Stuff found that 79 percent of third-grade teachers still devote class time to it [source: Shapiro]. And several states that adopted the Common Core Curriculum have also mandated continued cursive instruction in their schools [source: Bateman]. Clearly, plenty of education experts think longhand has relevance, even in a keyboard world.