The Conundrum of Cursive

Does cursive handwriting have a place in today’s schools?  That depends on who you talk to, but I say yes, it does.

You may be thinking, “Typing skills are needed in the real world.”  Yes, of course, but one skill shouldn’t come at the exclusion of another.  I teach my fifth graders cursive (if they don’t know it already) because I have seen how it can influence their writing and effort.  I also teach typing skills because my students need that skill to work on our webpage, type the writing portion of the AZ Merit test, and more.

Dr. Virginia Berninger, a researcher at the University of Washington, has shown that print handwriting, cursive handwriting, and typing on a keyboard are associated with different brain patterns.  She reported that cursive writing in particular improves the interaction between the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain that involve thinking, language, and working memory.

Dr. Beringer’s research found what I’ve watched in my classroom the past few years – that when children wrote with a pen and paper, they had more ideas, wrote more words and wrote them faster than when typing.

Dr. Beringer indicates that she sees an advantage for learning handwriting through sixth grade.  Interestingly brain imaging indicates that when older students are asked to come up with ideas for writing projects or essays, the better handwriting they have, the more neural activity seen in the brain image.

Multiple studies found that students who take notes by typing on a laptop rather than writing don’t perform as well on tests on the same material.  Researchers believe that students who take notes on a laptop transcribe lectures word for word, while students who hand-write notes process information and reframe it in their own words, reinforcing and deepening the learning and moving it to long term memory.

The College Board even found that students who wrote in cursive on the SAT essay portion of the test tended to score slightly higher, perhaps because they could write faster than their printing counterparts and focus more on the content of the essay.

Other research suggests that cursive may be an effective tool against dyslexia and conditions associated with fine motor skill difficulties.  Others list reasons to learn cursive such as better spelling, grammar, and increased legibility.

Anecdotally, I find that all students benefit from learning cursive because it is a multi-sensory repeated experience where they must integrate fine motor skills with visual and tactile processing.  Though I teach cursive to all my students, I find that students with learning difficulties and ADD/ADHD or students who are “early finishers” (aka rushers) benefit the most.  Learning cursive is something any student can accomplish.  I witness a boost in self-confidence from some of the kids in my class who may not often be acknowledged for superior academic skills in school but can boast about their lovely cursive handwriting.  For many students it is a fun time to express creativity and work on personalization.

Some adults feel so strongly about this issue that it has been brought to 11 state legislatures over the past few years, this year including Arizona.  Arizona’s version of the bill — SB 1197 — would require public schools include cursive instruction in the minimum course of study, which defines what subjects schools need to teach students like reading, math, and science.  Senators were concerned about students’ ability to read historical documents like the Constitution or to sign legal documents.  Let’s address the argument about reading historic documents.  As lofty as that goal may sound, handwriting of long ago only vaguely resembles today’s cursive handwriting, so that issue is pretty moot.  Most of us, even cursive readers and writers, would most likely find a printed copy if we were going to teach it for comprehension and ideas anyway.


Readable version

Readable version of the US Constitution

Benefits of learning and writing cursive should capture the attention of local school associations, not be forced upon us as another unfunded mandate from our legislature.  Putting cursive instruction into statute limits local control of how and when it will be taught.

The Arizona Standards Development Committee, made of professional, practicing teacher leaders, has been discussing and considering adding cursive to the appropriate grade levels.  This issue should go through the review process by professional educators, under the supervision of the Arizona Department of Education, and with the ultimate approval of the State Board of Education, not legislated by politicians in the capital.  This idea sets a dangerous precedent of allowing the legislature to mandate anything they want teachers to teach.

As I tell my students, your handwriting shows that you care.  As much as I love the speech-to-text feature, I also love to receive a handwritten note from my students, complete with their “John Hancock.”  If you care about this issue (maybe not cursive, but professional educators deciding what should be taught), then please take the time to let your legislator hear from you.


Beth Maloney

I am in my twentieth year of teaching and enjoy every minute of my time in the classroom. I have taught kindergarten, third grade, and currently teach fifth-grade science and social studies in Surprise, Arizona. I am an enthusiastic public school advocate. I am a National Board Certified Teacher and a Candidate Support Provider for the Arizona K12 Center, where I coach and mentor other teachers undergoing the rigorous National Board certification. I am the past president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teacher Network and president and founder of the Arizona Chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I am honored to be Arizona’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and appreciate having the opportunity to represent the teachers of Arizona. I love talking with and learning from other teachers around the world. I strongly believe that teacher voice in the public education dialogue is the best way to make change for the better for all students.

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