Whatever Happened To Cursive Writing?

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which using technology trumps cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much for the rest of their lives. Oops! Almost forgot that people do not have to sign documents since there are now electronic cursive signatures. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

What is cursive writing?

The following photos show this form of handwriting in and out of school.

Practicing Cursive

Why was it a required skill in elementary schools in the 20th century?

While the typewriter was introduced into businesses in the late 19th century, home typewriters did not become common until mid-20th century. Nearly all writing (e.g., letters, notes on birthdays and anniversaries, postcards, small businesses’s bills) was cursive through most of the 20th century. With the widespread use of typewriters and now computers, cursive writing lessened dramatically.

Educational arguments for keeping handwriting, however, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand, that is, reading key historical documents (e.g. Declaration of Independence), notes students take in classes, to-do lists, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say.

What has happened to it in most schools?

Observers believe that the crowded curriculum in the elementary school grades particularly in the years after A Nation at Risk report (1983) and especially following No Child Left Behind (2002) left little space for teaching handwriting. NCLB concentrated on reading and math lessons both of which took up huge chunks of time in the primary grades.

Then states adopted Common Core curriculum standards beginning in 2010 tolling the death knell for cursive writing. No mention of teaching cursive writing, for example, appeared in the Common Core standards (or some version of it). As one member of the lead writers for the English/Language Arts Standard said:

“We thought that more and more of student communications and adult communications are via technology. And knowing how to use technology to communicate and to write was most critical for students…..

While most states in past decades have dropped cursive writing from elementary school classes, a few states (e.g., Illinois) have mandated teaching the handwriting skill (e.g., Texas second graders have to learn cursive writing by the third grade). Over 20 states have adopted some cursive writing requirement.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditional grammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as societal changes occur. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots. Schools mirror society.

My hunch is that as Latin in secondary school largely disappeared by the 1970s (recall the math and science concentration in U.S. schools after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite). Yet the language has made a slight comeback in the past few decades. Of the 10-plus million high school students who study a foreign language (e.g., Spanish, French, German, etc.) a mere two percent take Latin as their foreign language.

So I believe that cursive writing will stick around in those states that continue their requirement for it and districts where parents want it for their children. But for the majority of school districts, kiss it goodbye.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

5 responses to “Whatever Happened To Cursive Writing?

  1. Laura H.Chapman

    Children are also not learning how to use scissors, or glue unless it is the form of a stick, or how to fold paper, corner to corner. Teachers in the visual arts are witnessing a decline in these once taken for granted or easily taught skills. There is a long list, as you rightly observe, of skills that will become ever more rare. I have two friends, experts in calligraphy, one who makes a living using those skills in painting custom cars. He is in “the pin striper’s Hall of Fame.” Etsy is one of the places people go to sell handcrafted wares, along with quaint “crafts fairs.” I think there are similar stories for instrumental music. Meanwhile athleticism in sports is still admired and cultivated, especially in boys. Digital skills once referred to physical dexterity.
    And so it goes.

  2. conniegoddard

    Of more concern than handwriting disappearing is the disappearance of civics, about which you’ve surely written before. This past week, in honor of the election and of her 11/11 birthday, I’ve been posting the attached

  3. wjshan

    A similar case in Taiwan to be shared. Chinese calligraphy was one of the required leaning tasks while I was a student in grade and high school back to more than 50 years ago. There is no more. It tuns out to be one of the extra-curricula activities in higher education institutions, but not in grade and high schools.

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