Cursive writing was supposed to be dead by now. Schools would stop teaching it. Kids would stop learning it. Everyone would stop using it. The Common Core standards adopted by most states in recent years no longer required teaching cursive in public schools, and the widespread reaction was succinct: good riddance.
But like Madonna and newspapers, cursive has displayed a gritty staying power, refusing to have its loop de loops and curlicues swept to the dustbin of handwriting history. Just last month, Louisiana passed a law requiring that all traditional public schools and public charter schools begin teaching cursive by third grade and continue through 12th grade. Arkansas legislators passed a law mandating cursive instruction last year. And 10 other states, including Virginia, California, Florida and Texas, have cursive writing requirements in their state education standards.
The cursive comeback is championed by a mix of educators, researchers, parents and politicians who lament the loss of linked-letter writing and cite studies that learning cursive engages the brain more deeply, improves fine motor dexterity and gives children a better idea of how words work in combination.
And some also just like the way it looks.
“I think it’s really discouraging to get a note from a college graduate that is printed like a second-grader,” said Beth Mizell, the Louisiana state senator who introduced the cursive writing bill in her state.
The Republican lawmaker said she acted when she heard from a surveyor who told her he couldn’t find young people who could read the notes on old land documents. A grandmother, Mizell said she was shocked to find out that students were no longer learning cursive in school.
“It seemed we had made a decision that was arrogant on our part that we didn’t think these kids needed something that we had taken for granted, that was our way of communicating for generations,” she said.
Those pushing for a return to cursive cite studies that show it benefits students in many ways, from improving their spelling and comprehension to helping them generate ideas and compose them more easily.
“There’s a myth that in the era of computers we don’t need handwriting. That’s not what our research is showing,” said Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington professor who has co-authored studies on the topic and followed the same children every year for five years to track their development. “What we found was that children until about grade six were writing more words, writing faster and expressing more ideas if they could use handwriting — printing or cursive — than if they used the keyboard.”
She said the connecting strokes in cursive help children speed up handwriting making it easier for them to compose thoughts: “It helps get your words down on paper more quickly.”
But Berninger is not an absolutist on cursive. She recommends a minimal amount of daily instruction that is less focused on drills than acquiring the basics.
“Yes, let’s put handwriting back in schools, but just enough to let us get on with the real business of writing and communicating,” she said.
Though it was widely taught in schools in the early 20th century, cursive’s dominance has been in jeopardy ever since. First it was threatened by printed handwriting, and then it fell further from favor as typewriters, personal computers, laptops and tablets gained widespread use. More recently, the smartphone has become cursive’s chief enemy as the graceful, fluid lines of sentences inked on paper by a carefully gripped pen have rapidly given way to tweets and texts battered out with indifferent thumbs on mini keyboards or screens.
Many who want cursive back yearn for the artistry of the handwriting style. But if the early 20th century marked the golden age of cursive, it was less about beautiful penmanship than it was about discipline and conformity, said Tamara Thornton, a University at Buffalo historian who tackled the subject in her 1996 book, “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History.”
“Learning cursive has never been just about learning how to express yourself in writing,” Thornton said. “In the early 20th century, it’s about following models and suppressing your individuality.”
Handwriting drills at the time were compared to military drills, with the idea that an emphasis on repetition and perfection would keep students in line and lead to standardization. Thornton sees a correlation between cursive’s waxing and waning fortunes and the nation’s political and cultural climate.
“We get very interested in cursive when we feel that our morals are in a state of decline, all hell is breaking loose, people are doing whatever they want,” Thornton said.“And I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch that the sort of people who believe in the standard model of the family get very nervous when we depart from the standard models of the cursive script. So there have been periodic bouts of hysteria about the decline of cursive. And it’s always when we feel that as a society, we’re going down the tubes.”
Like many school districts across the country, D.C. Public Schools leaves the decision on whether to include cursive as part of the curriculum up to individual principals and teachers.
“I trust our teachers to teach kids what they need to know without mandating every little thing,” said outgoing D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is retiring in October following a five-year run leading the system. “And I feel like we are increasingly in a place where the mandates are overwhelming.”
Henderson, who opts to print when she writes by hand rather than to use cursive, isn’t spending a lot of time thinking about the issue.
“It’s not something that I feel strongly about when I’ve got a whole lot of other things to worry about,” she said with a laugh.
As he prepares to enter fifth grade this fall, Sean Beilke, 10, of Bethesda, Md., has been learning to write in cursive, something that isn’t taught in the Montgomery County public school he attends.
“When I first saw it in first grade, I thought: ‘That’s neat. I’d like to try that someday,’ ” Sean said. “It’s kind of fancy.”
Sean’s parents both work in high-tech, but they wanted their sons to be able to write in cursive because they believe a foundation in handwriting could affect their ability to innovate.
“There’s just a huge difference in the creative part of the brain when you are writing and when you are typing,” said Sean’s mother, Molly McCarthy, who works for Microsoft. “I really support our public schools, but I feel like we’re doing a huge disservice by not teaching handwriting and cursive.”
For Jan Olsen, the renewed push for more cursive instruction is good for business. Olsen is president of Handwriting Without Tears, a company she founded more than two decades ago in suburban Washington that has 150 employees and has become one of the leading handwriting and cursive curriculums in the country.
Many of the school districts that still teach cursive use Handwriting Without Tears materials. And in areas where schools have abandoned cursive, many individual families who want their kids to learn the writing style purchase the brand’s workbooks for home instruction.
“If kids don’t have the mechanics, no matter what they’re thinking in their minds, it’s hard to get it on paper,” said Olsen, an occupational therapist who developed her handwriting method for her son when he had difficulty learning cursive as an elementary school student in the 1970s.
Olsen also worries about the loss of cursive’s signature contribution: the signature.
“Handwriting is meant to be personal,” she said. “That’s why a signature is a signature. Because nobody writes exactly like anybody else.”
But Thornton, the handwriting historian, isn’t swayed by the signature argument.
“People do like to express their individuality, but they can do it in many ways,” she said. “For all I know, people are coming up with their own emoji and maybe that will replace the signature.”
The debate over whether to teach kids cursive will probably not go away soon.
Lawmakers in Indiana and Washington introduced bills earlier this year to return cursive to classrooms. Texas, a state where third- and fourth-graders are required to learn cursive, is considering extending instruction to second-graders. Even as keyboard-fueled communication extends its dominance, educators, politicians and parents continue to evaluate the handwritten word and its relevance to young students.
(Full disclosure: This story was typed on a computer, but the notes were taken in cursive.)