Like 32-volume encyclopedias or cassette tapes, cursive writing has become a casualty of technology. Why learn how to draw that funny-looking crooked triple loop when you can just tap the shift key and the letter Z on your mobile phone? Better yet, why bother with uppercase letters at all? they’re not necessary for understanding.
Yet misgivings over the eclipse of cursive-writing instruction are provoking a backlash, with some state legislators overriding decisions to drop the lessons. Most American adults were taught that print writing was a step to cursive, the mark of true literacy. So it’s fair to ask: Will students deprived of this skill be lacking something essential?
In a word: no. Literacy, it’s worth remembering, is an evolving concept. For three centuries -- until pocket calculators became common in the mid-1970s -- students had to master the slide rule to quickly solve complex math problems, such as determining a number’s square root. Today, most kids probably couldn’t click on a slide rule even if it were right on the screen in front of them.
School districts that have stopped teaching cursive understand that people will increasingly “write” with keyboards; they don’t require a second, fancier form of handwriting. For these reasons, the Common Core State Standards Initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association excluded cursive from its recommended curriculum, which has been adopted by 45 states. The standards require students to demonstrate proficiency in using a keyboard to type at least a page in a single sitting by the fourth grade.
Legislatures in California, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia have responded by mandating cursive teaching. Similar bills have been introduced in five other states this year. This counteraction is the product of an understandable but unhelpful attachment to tradition.
The blowback is also a result of flawed reasoning. There’s an argument that new generations must master cursive in order to read their forebears’ cursive documents. Yet students who can read print can be taught to read cursive in as little as an hour without spending the months of practice necessary to master formation of the loopy, connected letters of cursive.
There’s also an argument that cursive writing bestows benefits to the brain. This is far from established science. Some of the cited research actually deals with any writing by hand, including printing, while some is simply insubstantial. Even if it were clear that cursive writing somehow stimulates the brain, that’s not a reason to teach it. Plenty of activities arouse the brain -- meditation, learning to use a slide rule, playing Sudoku.
The issue is how students spend their limited time in school. In districts where cursive has been dropped, its former teachers have been among the most enthusiastic, because the change liberates them to teach more valuable subjects.
Noting that students who wrote their SAT essays in cursive score slightly higher than those who printed them, proponents of cursive instruction conclude that the cursive writers wrote more quickly and efficiently and could thus focus better on the substance of their writing. Perhaps. In this digital age, however, the better question is why anyone is still writing SAT essays out longhand.
That’s the view to the future that state legislators should keep in mind as they consider the case of cursive instruction. Students have more important things to learn, which they no doubt would be happy to describe in an e-mail.
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