Why cursive handwriting needs to make a schoolcomeback

Why cursive handwriting needs to make a schoolcomeback
Older generations have sometimes been shocked that some younger people can’t read a handwritten note. Credit: Shutterstock

Teaching connected-style handwriting, otherwise known as cursive handwriting, has fallen out of fashion on many school curricula. Older generations have sometimes been shocked that some younger people today can't sign their names on official documents or even read a handwritten note.

Canadian provinces have seen a decline in teaching and learning cursive. In Ontario schools, for example, teachers might introduce cursive, but it's not mandatory.

Such a development is reflective of larger trends of focusing less on teaching and assessing handwriting for itself—and more on what it's communicating.

Alberta's kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum, for example, stipulates that students learn to "listen, speak, read and write" and also envisions outcomes that require printing, such as connecting prior ideas. But the curriculum doesn't mandate assessing printing skills themselves. In Alberta's 2018 new draft curriculum yet to be implemented, cursive is mentioned, but it's not identified as a competency.

Beyond a nostalgia for the pre-digital age, there are good reasons why cursive handwriting needs to make a comeback. As a researcher who has studied the relationship of handwriting to literacy, along with other scholars, I've found that developing fluency in printing and handwriting so that it comes automatically matters for literacy outcomes. Handwriting is also an elegant testimony to the for written literacy and an inspiring symbol of the unique power of the human voice.

Too difficult?

In today's age of digital literacy, many think handwriting is irrelevant altogether and a waste of precious instructional time. But touching a "d" on the keyboard, for example, does not create the internal model of a "d" that printing does. Keyboarding can wait.

Why cursive handwriting needs to make a schoolcomeback
Older generations have sometimes been shocked that some younger people can’t read a handwritten note. Credit: Shutterstock

Some may associate cursive with any number of outdated formats of handwriting that may have indeed seemed like a curse to master—loopy, twisty and hard on little hands in terms of muscle movement and also for visual memory.

But handwriting is only difficult if it is not automatic and, in turn, offloaded into long-term memory. Evolving research in the neurosciences underscores the importance of developing automatic skills in relation to what educational psychologists call the cognitive load.

Lessons learned from sports or the performing arts highlight the importance of establishing neuronal connections that promote fluid movement. With reading and writing, too, the keys to unlocking creativity or interpretation of story elements are also related to being able to write automatically.

Lack of fluency

By Grade 4, the cognitive demands of curriculum quickly accelerate: students must produce more, faster and better. Students who have fluent handwriting consequently have more working memory capacity available to plan, organize, revise and retrieve sophisticated vocabulary.

In a study I conducted with my colleagues of about 250 Grade 4 students in an Alberta school, we found that only about half of the students in our study achieved the necessary threshold in handwriting.

These children's handwriting was insufficient to communicate the complexity of vocabulary and ideas expected in Grade 4. Most students had vocabulary they were not able to mobilize onto the page. Students' failure to reach the required threshold of expression at this level is associated with a phenomenon recognized by researchers as the Grade 4 slump, a drop in outcomes from which students may not necessarily recover.

Why cursive handwriting needs to make a schoolcomeback
Example of printing on its way to cursive handwriting. Credit: Sibylle Hurschler Lichtsteiner

Improving literacy outcomes

Schools must and can do better, starting early. The key is not only teaching cursive, but a greater focus on all printing to cursive handwriting, spelling instruction and fine motor skills. These developments are essential for literacy foundations in the kindergarten to Grade 3 years.

Building on these earlier skills, the key to improving academic outcomes in Grade 4 is teaching young students to connect their letters, resulting in a style of handwriting that is legible and fluent.

Steven Graham, an expert in special education, writing and literacy at Arizona State University, advocates for beginning with printing or "traditional manuscript" and transitioning to what he calls mixed mostly manuscript, whereby the child is learning a continuous stroke.

Similarly, an example from early literacy scholar Sibylle Hurschler Lichtsteiner of Germany shows a transition from manuscript letters to joined letters. It evolves naturally, with support, from children's initial style of print in grades 2 to 3. Once young have internalized stable, mental models of letter shapes, they can generalize and recognize various types of cursive script with a bit of practice.

Power of the pen

Testimonies draw attention to the power of cursive handwriting. The film Saving Private Ryan made famous the historical Bixby Letter written to the mother of sons killed in the American Civil War. While historians debate whether Abraham Lincoln or a member of his staff actually wrote the letter, ongoing interest in the letter through history suggests how human handwriting conveys personhood, care and captures imagination.

A scene about the Bixby Letter from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

In our own era, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate ever, reminds us: "One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world."

Although Yousafzai first came to global attention via blogging, through her book Malala's Magic Pencil she suggests a connection between the elegance and craft of a child's handwriting and their personal agency.

Yousafzai's handwriting has become a symbol of her advocacy. It demonstrates the power of written literacy, its intimate relationship to human identity and existence and its potential to remind the world of ultimate belief in human agency for good. Generations before, the young diarist Anne Frank did the same.

Our society impoverishes children if we don't learn from those who have gone before us. People who learn how to spell and to develop legible, fluent will have tools at their avail to confidently express themselves and circumvent inconveniences like losing power on one's digital device.

It's high time to put cursive skills back on the curriculum across Canada.


Explore further

Learning cursive in the first grade helps students

Provided by The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

Citation: Why cursive handwriting needs to make a schoolcomeback (2019, August 23) retrieved 19 September 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-08-cursive-schoolcomeback.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
94 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 23, 2019
I learned cursive, but it was no use because later in school all the exams and papers had to be written in type so the teachers could read it, and because there were always some kids who didn't have the motor skills to write in cursive, and they'd take forever to write the answers. It would put them at a disadvantage.

After 20 years of not actually needing it for anything other than writing my signature, I've pretty much lost the ability and the end result is something that even I have trouble deciphering. Whenever I want to write quickly by hand, I actually transition back to type because I simply can't remember how you're supposed to connect the letters.

The argument that it somehow helps people communicate better, or understand text, is based on pretty shaky evidence.

Aug 23, 2019
If anything, cursive is a holdback from times when people wrote with fountain pens or quills, because with those you have to keep the ink flowing and keep the ink from splattering all over the sheet. That required a special way of writing based on loops and turns, so you could always keep the nib on the paper.

With mechanical pencils and ballpoint pens, it just becomes natural to lift the pen, and joining letters happens only where it actually makes sense.

What I most hate about cursive is the requirement that you write a word in a continuous line and then go back to dot the i-s and cross the t-s. It just feels wrong, but if you don't do it then you end up lifting the pen anyways, and you break the line.

Aug 23, 2019
I can't imagine forgetting how to write cursive. I just tested myself, and I still remember after 40 years. It's like riding a bicycle, which I also can still do. I still have a callus on my right middle finger from all the writing I did when I was a teenager and in my 20s.

For that matter, I can still operate a log-log-duplex-decitrig slide rule. I have one, but it's not as good as my TI graphing calculator so I don't bother often. Not to mention an oscilloscope, which I have two of in my garage.

These kinds of manual dexterity power the development of minds; look at calligraphy in Japan and China. Losing them to keyboards and calculators leaves many young capable minds to waste away. Do you wonder why the Chinese are so good at physics and math? Wonder no more.

Aug 24, 2019
I don't often agree much with The Beak but here it's right on. The technological easy way, paved by some old guy, doesn't exercise the brain much. Kind'a like muscles, 25 miles on a bicycle are good for you.

Aug 24, 2019
@Doug, you're right, we don't often agree, but a brain requires exercise just as a body does. It needs to remain supple and ready for effort any time.

Aug 25, 2019
had to be written in type


written in type????
Written or typed?

Aug 28, 2019
I can't imagine forgetting how to write cursive. I just tested myself, and I still remember after 40 years. It's like riding a bicycle, which I also can still do.


The reason to that is:

I still have a callus on my right middle finger from all the writing I did when I was a teenager and in my 20s.


I don't. After learning cursive in school, I had absolutely no use for it, not even in the school itself. It was just something you had to do for just long enough that they could say they've taught you something. I think it was up till fifth grade, and then they told us to write all the papers and exams in print, because writing legible cursive was too slow.

They also changed the cursive lettering to resemble the print letters, which made it more jerky to write, with the idea that them being similar would make people transition from one to the other automatically. It didn't work. It just made the cursive look uglier.

Aug 28, 2019
had to be written in type


written in type????
Written or typed?


Type, print, block letters. The sort of sans-serif stuff you're reading here, whether by hand or machine.

Aug 28, 2019
I can't imagine forgetting how to write cursive. I just tested myself, and I still remember after 40 years. .....BLAH...BLAH...Wonder no more.

Well, if you were wondering whether cursive contributed to intelligence. Da Schitts confirms it absolutely does not.
So, wonder no more.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more