The curlicue letters of cursive handwriting, once considered a mainstay of American elementary education, have been slowly disappearing from classrooms for years. Now, with most states adopting new national standards that don’t require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated from most public schools.
For many students, cursive is becoming as foreign as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. In college lecture halls, more students take notes on laptops and tablet computers than with pens and notepads. Responding to handwritten letters from grandparents in cursive is no longer necessary as they, too, learn how to use email, Facebook and Skype.
And educators, seeking to prepare students for a successful future in which computer and typing skills have usurped penmanship, are finding cursive’s relevance waning, especially with leaner school budgets and curricula packed with standardized testing prep. So they’re opting not to teach it anymore.
“It’s seeing the writing on the wall,” said Patricia Granada, principal at Eagle View elementary in Fairfax County. “Cursive is increasingly becoming obsolete.”
Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the largest teachers union in the county, called cursive “a dying art.”
“Cursive writing is a traditional skill that has been replaced with technology,” Hairston said. “Educators are having to make choices about what they teach with a limited amount of time and little or no flexibility. Much of their instructional time is consumed with teaching to a standardized test.”
Since 2010, 45 states — including Maryland — and the District have adopted the Common Core standards, which do not require cursive instruction but leave it up to the individual states and districts to decide whether they want to teach it. A report the same year by the Miami-Dade public school system found that cursive instruction has been slowly declining nationwide since the 1970s.
“The Common Core State Standards allow communities and teachers to make decisions at the local level about to teach reading and writing . . . so they can teach cursive if they think it’s what their students need,” said Kate Dando, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which promotes the Common Core. “The standards define the learning targets that need to be met to ensure students graduate from high school prepared for success in college and careers. . . . The decision to include cursive when teaching writing is left to states, districts, schools and teachers.”
A few D.C. traditional public and charter schools offer cursive; most others don’t. In Montgomery County, cursive is part of the curriculum, school officials said, but in most cases, it is up to educators to make the time to teach it.
The Virginia Department of Education mandates that third-graders should be able to read and write legibly in cursive. Although cursive is technically part of the curriculum in Fairfax County, the reality is that it’s not widely taught, teachers said.
Proponents of cursive say that many of the country’s historical documents were written in the fancy script, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They say that future historians who lack the ability to read cursive might not be able to study original historical documents.
Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive.
“I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I read the Constitution,” Graham said. “The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s.”
He said that today’s teachers value typing more than handwriting, and that by the 12th grade, about half of all papers are composed with computer word processing.
“When you think about the world in the 1950s, everything was by hand. Paper and pencil,” Graham said. “Right now, it’s a hybrid world.”
Graham said the argument for keeping cursive around centers more on tradition than practicality.
“What I typically hear for keeping cursive is how nice it is when you receive a beautifully cursive-written letter. It’s like a work of art,” Graham said. “It’s pretty, but is that a reason for keeping something, given that we do less and less of those kinds of cards anymore?”
Deborah Spear, an academic therapist based in Great Falls, said cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.
“You will find people who say, ‘Why teach cursive anymore because we have keyboarding,’” said Spear, who taught special education in Fairfax County before starting her own business in 2009. “They’ll say, ‘Who cares if my kid can read Grandma’s letters when Grandma is beginning to Skype anyway.’ Yes, needing to read cursive is greatly diminishing in our society, but it’s still very applicable as an instructional tool.”
Several states have tried to resurrect cursive. California, Georgia and Massachusetts all have laws mandating cursive instruction, and last month, legislators in Idaho passed a bill instructing the state Board of Education to include cursive in the curriculum.
Some experts contend that nice handwriting can lead to better grades in school. Laura Dinehart, an education professor at Florida International University, recently conducted a study that found that children with neater handwriting developed better reading and math skills than their chicken-scratch peers.
According to a 2006 College Board report, SAT essays written in cursive received a slightly higher score than those with block print. But only 15 percent of the essays were written in cursive.
At Broad Acres Elementary in Silver Spring, students receive minimal cursive instruction, reading specialist Liz Fasulo said. The children spend more time learning to read it than write it.
“We don’t want them to be boxed out of it,” Fasulo said.
At St. Francis International School, which is across the street from Broad Acres, cursive receives more prominence.
“Cursive is traditionally a very Catholic school subject,” Principal Tobias Harkleroad said, noting that penmanship is rated on students’ report cards through eighth grade.
On a recent morning, children hunched over dry-erase boards and traced curlicue letters with colored marker during a morning cursive lesson in Harolyn Slaughter’s fourth-grade classroom at St. Francis.
Jude Muraya, 9, said he had the most trouble with the lowercase “f.”
“It’s got a lot of loops,” Muraya said. “It’s the hardest.”
The children practiced the lowercase “q.” Slaughter told them: “Start at the top. Make a ‘c.’ Bring it around. Up. Bring it down. U-turn and walk it out.”
Carter Rodia, 10, had neat loops and curls on his board.
“I like doing it,” Rodia said. “It’s cool and fancy. It’s faster because you write all the letters together.”
Slaughter, who attended Catholic schools as a child, played a cursive rap song on a boombox while the students continued to practice.
“If you’re going to be a famous soccer player, you need a signature for autographs,” she told the children.
Harkleroad said cursive and neat handwriting have played a crucial role in the preservation of history. For centuries, Harkleroad said, monks in monasteries cared for fragile books and labored making copies of the manuscripts by hand.
“It’s for their benefit to be able to write well,” Harkleroad said. “It’s tempting to cut it, but no one has given me a compelling reason for why it’s worthless to teach cursive.”
Graham, the Arizona State professor, said that for classroom educators, the cost for teaching cursive is precious time.
“The question is why teach two forms of writing when one will do the trick?” Graham said. “Something’s gotta give. Cursive handwriting is under pressure.”