Cursive Is Not Dead Yet

Texas shows the way to resuscitation.

Posted Apr 14, 2019

The national education standards, Common Core, aimed to kill the teaching of cursive. But it is not dead—just wounded.

Yesterday, I did a radio interview on WHO in DesMoines, which bills itself as the “America’s #1 Audio Company.” I remember fondly listening to WHO over the three years when I lived in Iowa many years ago. The Justin Brady Radio Show people had read one of my articles on why teaching cursive to children is valuable, and they wanted to explore things further. As many people know, the Common Core standards did away with the teaching of cursive, presumably because it is not relevant in a digital age when children write by tapping a screen or keyboard.

My state of Texas, notable for doing its own thing, has refused to endorse Common Core, but still the state did not require the teaching of cursive. Now Texas mandates the teaching of cursive. In accordance with the state's new school guidelines, second-graders will be taught how to write cursive letters before advancing to third grade, where they'll be expected to "write complete words, thoughts and answers legibly in cursive writing leaving appropriate spaces between words." When students get to fourth grade, they'll be required to write all of their assignments in cursive.

Justin Brady wanted to know what I thought about all this. My first reaction was, “If we don’t need to teach cursive, why do we need to teach printing by hand?” Cursive is just a refinement of printing letters. Why don’t we just show them pictures of the letters and teach them to punch a key for the letters? In fact, that may well be the next educational “reform.”

We teach printing so kids can more easily learn their ABCs. We could teach ABCs by showing children which letters to tap on a screen. Maybe in some states that think they are so progressive, the teaching of printing letters will be on the way out. However, the reason learning to print letters by hand matters is that it demands mental engagement. A child has to think about the structure of each letter, and in the process of thinking about how to draw it, learns and remembers what the letters look like. Hand printing is an example of the “production effect” principle that benefits memory. We remember things better if we reproduce the learning, either by drawing, writing, or telling. One of the fundamental but unheralded principles of learning is that the best way to remember anything is to think about it.

Learning cursive builds on this principle and provides additional benefits. Cursive has two special advantages over printing: it promotes a higher-level mental development, and it can nurture a child’s emotions and motivation for learning and achievement.

Brain Development

Cursive should be easy to learn once one knows how to print letters, because there are many good books explaining the slight modifications needed to turn printed letters into script. But cursive demands more hand-eye coordination, a change in brain wiring that creates the mental infrastructure for many later uses in real life. Hand-finger dexterity becomes crucial in later life if a child wants to play a musical instrument, excel in sports, manipulate tools, or even master a computer keyboard. In my blog post that Justin had read, I had described how writing in cursive activated many more areas of brain than mere printing. It is training the brain to recruit neural resources to solve problems.

Excelling at cursive does another important thing: The learner has to pay more attention and focus on what needs to be done to make each letter and attractive. To do a good job at cursive requires self-discipline. Who can argue that kids don’t need to learn focus and self-discipline? Our multi-tasking culture is teaching kids to be scatterbrained. All kids have some level of attention deficit.

Learning cursive successfully also incidentally programs the brain for the habit of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a mental heuristic that enables a person to pay attention to the details of what is needed to improve a skill. If an adult wants to improve her golf game, she has to do more than just repeat a swing of the club. She has to think about what is the best way to improve the swing with each attempt.

Motivational Benefit

Learning to write cursive well has enormous motivational and emotional benefits. First, writing cursive is a form of drawing, and children naturally love to draw. The child happily takes ownership of their cursive creations, being proud of having a skill that generates such elegant writing. They can even develop a personal style, which is gratifying in their limited world that demands so much conformity. They discover that they have powers of mastery, which motivates them to do better in other school work. Of course, they also discover the practical benefit of cursive, which is that they can write much faster than printing, which helps them greatly in taking schoolwork notes.

In recalling my own childhood, I remember that I did not like school until seventh grade. Before then I hated school and made poor grades. It may have been no accident that I started to like school and make all As in that year when I also had a couple months of penmanship class. I knew how to write cursive earlier, but penmanship taught me how to write cursive that was attractive, not perhaps as elegant as the script in the Declaration of Independence, but still something I created that I could be proud of. I still have attractive cursive today.

So, I say “hats off” to states like Texas that are restoring the hallowed place of cursive in elementary education. My only criticism is that second-graders are not likely to have the brain development and hand-eye coordination required to create attractive cursive. Children need refresher instruction when they are older, as I was lucky enough to get in a couple months of the seventh grade. If a child does not learn to do cursive well, many of the emotional and motivational benefits do not occur. In fact, if their cursive is ugly and unreadable, the emotions are negative.