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Cursive writing gains renewed momentum in schools

Research: Cursive in K12 plays role in learning spelling and math, developing motor skills
Education Commission of the States: The state of cursive writing education in the U.S.
Education Commission of the States: The state of cursive writing education in the U.S.

Is cursive writing doomed to become a long-lost art? Not if some educators have anything to say about it.

After decades of remaining a main component of elementary education, cursive is up for debate under the Common Core standards.

Its detractors argue that cursive is an antiquated form of writing that’s not necessary in the digital age. Proponents cite research that indicates cursive plays a foundational role in learning other skills such as spelling and math, and even helps young children develop fine motor skills.

Several states and districts are bringing back cursive instruction. For example, starting next year, Arizona students will be taught cursive up to fifth grade. New York City schools have already started implementing cursive instruction.

And Ohio Reps. Andrew Brenner and Marilyn Slaby have proposed legislation that would require students in that state to be able to write legibly in standard print by third grade and in cursive by the end of fifth grade.

Common Core requires that handwriting be taught in K1. However, it doesn’t specify what kind of handwriting.

Steve Graham, a professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, says handwriting remains important because despite all the prevalent communications technologies, people still use a pencil and paper to write down thoughts.

Teacher surveys indicate that most student work is done by hand, rather than on a computer. Even in high school, half the assignments are still written by hand, Graham says. This means that students need to be able to write legibly because readers—or teachers—form opinions about the quality of the work based on neatness.

“The student might have good ideas on an essay test, but subjectivity will play a role,” Graham says. If the print or cursive is well-formed and legible, the reader may view the whole piece, including the content, more favorably.

Because cursive is faster than printing, a student’s hand can better keep up with their thoughts, Graham says. “If you are going to be a good writer, your writing has to be legible, fluid and automatic,” he says.

Handwriting instruction should also extend beyond second and third grade because students need to keep practicing how to form letters correctly, Graham says.

“But it’s not just about forming the letters, it is also about linking letters into word units, and that helps a student learn to spell the words,” says Virginia Berninger, professor emeritus at University of Washington who studies handwriting and how it relates to learning.

Research by Beverly Wolf indicates manuscript, cursive and typing all support different disciplines, Berninger says. For example, taking notes by hand helps with reading retention while cursive helps students link words to thoughts and concepts.

Cursive taught in grades 4 through 7 has been shown to create a unique advantage in spelling and math, Berninger says. “We need to prepare our students,” she says, “to be hybrid writers.”