Should We Kill Cursive?

The great cursive war continues to scrawl its way across the pages of modern education policy. Just a few years after some predicted it would become a relic of a bygone era, Alabama and Louisiana passed laws to make them the latest of 14 states mandating cursive proficiency in public schools. Why can't one side seem to win the back-and-forth over the future of writing?

Unlike that time teachers stopped teaching students that Pluto is a planet, there's no definitive scientific consensus agreeing that cursive is completely unnecessary for students to learn. In fact, science shows a number of benefits to learning cursive, from helping children learn the alphabet to increasing students' visual recognition and memory retention. It turns out that proponents of teaching cursive aren't just clinging to tradition (although there's some of that, too).

Scribble Me This, Scribble Me That

Since cursive was used to pen the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, there's an argument that future historians won't be able to study the original documents if they can't read them. But it's not hard to find these and other historic documents online and in textbooks – in print. And surely future historians can brush up on cursive writing to help them study documents like these, given that other scholars are offering college courses and publishing grammar guides to teach languages that have been dead for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

At the same time, history and tradition makes an argument for keeping handwriting around. On the Curiosity Podcast, handwriting analyst Dale Roberts explained: "In an era where everything is now emails and social media, we were thinking that handwriting would become a lost art. And yet in the business community, the new gold standard for communication is becoming the handwritten note." Many articles, from Psychology Today to Forbes, agree.

"When was the last time you received a letter from somebody?" he added. "When you get something in the mail that is obviously handwritten and addressed to you, that's the first thing you're going to read."

Don't Write Off Science

We already know that students who write notes by hand perform better in many ways than their screen-reliant counterparts. What about cursive specifically?

Research in the field of haptics (interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain function) suggests that cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual and tactile information and fine motor dexterity. Other research has found that handwriting could be crucial for helping children learn the alphabet. Deborah Spear, an academic therapist, told The Washington Post that "cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia" because of the way cursive letters start on a base line and move fluidly from left to right.

Another study showed that brain scans of children who practiced printing by hand had more enhanced and "adult-like" neural activity than those who had simply looked at letters. The brain's "reading circuit" of linked regions that are activated during reading was activated during handwriting, but not during typing. Cursive writing, compared to printing, should be even more beneficial because the movement tasks and visual recognition requirements are more demanding. Cursive is also more likely to engage students by providing a better sense of personal style and ownership.

Helping Hand

The benefits of handwriting are pretty clear, and it's not like handwriting is ever going to go away entirely, even with the continued saturation of computers. Handwriting remains a popular tool even among best-selling authors like J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and Mick Foley, who prefer to write their books longhand. Since many other writers agree that it helps them maximize their creativity, the continued use of cursive seems to make sense if for no other reason than efficiency.

"People think that printing is faster," Roberts told us on the Curiosity Podcast, "but it really isn't if they're doing it properly." If speed and efficiency are factors in the "usefulness" of how we teach writing, and handwriting will never completely disappear, then why not keep it in the curriculum?

Still, research conducted in 2015 showed that the average American adult spends over 11 hours a day in front of a screen. No matter how fast a person can write in cursive, it's hard to argue that it would be utilized as much as typing in most professions in today's digital world.

Some people feel so strongly about keeping cursive around, they've actually founded a Campaign for Cursive. Check it out if you want to join the front lines of the battle for the future of the written word.

Hear handwriting analyst Dale Roberts weigh in on the cursive debate and explain how to see what your handwriting says about your personality on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Gretta.

Cursive handwriting is dying. But some politicians refuse to accept it.

Written by Cody Gough November 21, 2017

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