Is cursive writing obsolete?

student writing cursive
Third grade student Conner Everett learns cursive penmanship at school in 2012. Some people question whether cursive handwriting is a dying art form.
© Patti Sapone/Star Ledger/Corbis

The last time I saw a cursive capital Q, I thought it was a 2. Like many of my generation, I started learning cursive in second grade, perfected it in third, and dropped it by the time I finished high school. I couldn't connect my letters now if I wanted to.

Flowing script and those loopy, 2-like Q's have been inching into oblivion for decades [source: Amos]. The trend suddenly turned official, though, when the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) first offered its K-12 curriculum for voluntary state adoption in 2010 [source: Common Core Standards Initiative]. The CCSSI, a movement aiming to standardize math and language-arts requirements across all U.S. states, decided to omit any mention of cursive writing, once a grade-school standard, in its guidelines [source: Shapiro].


With 45 states electing to implement the Common Core standard as of 2013, the long-debated, future demise of cursive appears to be moving into the present.

The relevance of cursive writing in a culture of keyboards is, at best, up for debate. Once, though, it was inarguably applicable. Before the advent of typewriters in the late 19th century, handwritten communication was the only way for people to express themselves on paper. So logically, good handwriting, and specifically the personalized, more intricate cursive format, was highly valued. Poor handwriting, like poor speaking, could make you look stupid, lazy or ignorant.

Now, it seems, not so much. The extent of cursive instruction in U.S. schools has steadily decreased since the 1960s, when the recommended allotment for handwriting instruction was 45 minutes per day [source: Kelley]. Two decades later, that was down to 15 minutes [source: Kelley]. Since then, with the increasing dominance of computer-based communication, questions have been raised as to whether "penmanship" should be taught at all.


Writing as Communication

The "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech card written by President Kennedy for his speech at Berlin City Hall.
The "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech card written by President Kennedy for his speech at Berlin City Hall.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives

With the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act and high-stakes standardized testing in the 21st century, cursive instruction has become almost an afterthought. There simply isn't enough time in the school day to focus intently on something that doesn't show up on the test.

The growing trend in public schools toward "teaching to the test" is only one of the reasons why cursive seems to be falling by the wayside. The curriculum is simply more complicated than it once was. Lessons in subjects like cultural diversity, international politics and computer science, once topics saved for higher education, are now introduced as early as elementary school. With such a diverse and ever-expanding set of requirements, handwriting instruction beyond the basic necessity of legible print has become somewhat beside the point.


The omnipresence of electronic forms of communication has, in many people's minds, rendered cursive skills practically obsolete. Who writes letters anymore in order to share a story with a friend? Who handwrites a cover letter when applying for a job? When's the last time you sat in a meeting and found yourself holding an agenda written in pen? Seemingly, cursive is an outdated skill in all the ways that count. With the exception of the legally binding signature, few people use it in daily (or even yearly) life.

Longhand is quickly becoming a lost skill, and the effects of that evolution aren't yet fully known. Increasingly, "writing instruction" is about content, not aesthetics; and with 2012 testing showing three-quarters of American high school seniors lack basic writing skills, that's not necessarily a bad thing [source: Kuczynski-Brown]. The ability to form a sentence, paragraph or essay that is articulate and grammatically correct is arguably more useful than the ability to form it neatly.

Not all educators and developmental experts would agree with that argument, though -- at least not without some type of caveat. As it turns out, cursive writing isn't just about the finished product.


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.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Amos, Denise Smith. "Is cursive's day in the classroom done?" USA Today. Aug. 12, 2013. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Bateman, Ashley. "Some States Reaffirm Cursive Instruction." The Heartland Institute. May 9, 2013. (Sept. 24, 2013)
  • Breen, Tom. "Cursive writing may be fading skill, but so what?" The Associated Press (via Newsday). Sept. 19, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Common Core Standards Initiative. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Downs, Megan. "Schools debate: Is cursive writing worth teaching?" USA Today. Jan. 23, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Gault, Ann Matturro. "A Leap Ahead in Writing." (Sept. 23, 2013) Scholastic.
  • Kelley, Raina. "The Writing On The Wall." Newsweek. Nov. 12, 2007. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Kuczynski-Brown, Alex. "Most U.S. Students Lack Writing Proficiency, National Assessment Of Educational Progress Finds." The Huffington Post. Sept. 14, 2012. (Sept. 26, 2013)
  • The Los Angeles Times. "No longer swearing by cursive writing." Sept. 4, 2013. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Perrette, Amy. "Technology may script an end to cursive writing." NBC News. Sept. 8, 2013. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Pothier, Mark. "In digital age, more t's are crossed poorly." The Boston Globe. May 6, 2007.
  • Shapiro, T. Rees. "Survey shows cursive, on the decline, is taught in many classrooms nationwide." The Washington Post. May 7, 2013. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • The San Francisco Chronicle. "Should kids be taught cursive writing in school?" Jan. 29, 2010. (Sept. 23, 2013)
  • Suddath, Claire. "Mourning the Death of Handwriting." Time. Aug. 3, 2009.