We should not have been surprised when the star witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial, a 19-year-old high school graduate, couldn’t read a letter handed to her by the defense attorney because, as she explained, “I don’t read cursive.” For many young people, cursive handwriting might as well be hieroglyphics. High school teachers say they no longer write in cursive on the board or on student papers because their students can’t read it. The customer rep at my bank recently told me that she has to print when she writes a note to the tellers.
Where The Teaching of Cursive Stands The new Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states, make the teaching of handwriting optional, and sentiment for dropping it altogether is widespread. To their credit, five State Boards of Education—Alabama, Massachusetts, Georgia, California, and Kansas—have included cursive in the standards for their schools, and the North Carolina legislature has actually passed a law requiring the teaching of cursive.
As far as I know, nobody is recommending that we not teach any form of handwriting at all. Typically manuscript printing or what is known as “ball-and-stick” is taught in first (sometimes kindergarten) through second grade. Cursive has then been taught in third though fourth grade. It should be said here that there are different forms of cursive writing. What most people think of as cursive is whatever they themselves were taught, which in the United States is probably a form of what might be called “looped or conventional cursive.” An alternative, Italic cursive, has no loops, is not preceded by ball-and-stick printing, but printed letters that are like the cursive form but unconnected. Many people assume that ball-and-stick, because it looks like print in books, helps children learn to read.
But What About That? Ball-and-stick was first introduced in the New York City school system in 1922 by Marjorie Wise, a reading specialist. Before then, children just learned cursive from the beginning. Wise herself eventually recognized that there are drawbacks to ball and stick, but by then it had caught on throughout the United States and we were stuck with it. Actually because of the fluid left-to-right movement of cursive and the fact that spaces come between words, not individual letters, it is more helpful to the beginning reader than ball-and-stick.
But why teach cursive at all? In ways not yet fully understood, being able to write fluently and rapidly in a running hand actually helps the brain learn how to work more efficiently. Research suggests that cursive facilitates creativity, helps memory, and gives kids a powerful tool for learning. What is unique about cursive is the fluidity of movement, which does not happen when one has to lift the pen between every letter or when one is tapping on a keyboard.
Where do we go from here? I’m afraid that saving cursive depends on more neuroscientific research. Only that will convince many teachers and parents that there are benefits to be had from knowing how to write fluently in a running hand that no other form of written communication offers. It will take time, but I’m convinced that will happen. Meanwhile it seems we will be turning out high school graduates who cannot sign their names.