Several states have passed legislation requiring public schools to teach cursive handwriting, to fill in after adopting Common Core national standards, which do not require cursive.
North Carolina’s House passed its “Back to Basics” bill March 4. Companion Senate Bill 243 unanimously passed the Senate Education Committee. The bills require public schools to teach cursive and multiplication tables, against a decades-long trend in the opposite direction.
“Common Core does not require cursive, which is probably why our state made [cursive] optional in 2011,” said Indiana state Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg), who sponsored a similar bill. “In regard to teachers and parents, I’ve heard a similar quantity from each about the importance of cursive. Teachers feel if it’s not mandated, they won’t be allowed to teach it because of other mandates and requirements.”
California, Georgia, Idaho, and Massachusetts have recently passed laws requiring cursive instruction. South Carolina and Indiana lawmakers considered similar bills. Because Common Core drops cursive, most schools are unlikely to teach it if states do not individually require it.
As typing has become predominant, many schools have dropped cursive, prompting researchers, legislators, and parents to discuss whether the skill is necessary for today’s kids.
Mandates vs. Desire
Indiana House Education Chairman Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) denied Leising’s bill a House hearing for the second year in a row, although it passed the Senate.
Fourteen of Indiana’s 50 senators “supported the bill strongly enough to put their name on it,” Leising said. “Clearly, the bill would have passed the House if it had been given the opportunity for a hearing. I think people are very dissatisfied with educational outcomes right now.”
Rather than wait for a state law, New Jersey grandmother Sylvia Hughes formed a cursive writing club at Nellie K. Parker Elementary in Hackensack when she realized her third and fourth-grade grandsons were not learning it in class.
“Students have pride in advancing in an area which was a tradition in our society for many years,” Hughes said. “Note-taking in class, as well as tests, can be completed quicker in cursive.”
The club quickly grew, and it now has 60 third- and fourth-grade members. Club members learn to hold a pencil properly when writing, view the movement and shape of cursive letters on a whiteboard, and practice writing letters that are consistent in shape and flow.
Parents were surprised to learn a club was necessary to get students cursive instruction, but they largely support the club, Hughes said.
“I was quite surprised by the response and by the enthusiasm of the students,” Hughes said. “It has been a very rewarding experience for me.… [Cursive] is just as important today as it was back in the 1940s when I attended grade school.”
Although laptops, tablets, and other electronic writing tools dominate college classrooms, cursive still has an important place in higher education, said Robert Weir, a lecturer at Smith College. Many professors and high school teachers assign in-class essays, for which cursive is useful, he noted.
“Cursive and multiplication tables have a similar value in that they simply give one another tool for when preferred tools don’t work,” Weir said. “Those forced to write produce less qualitative arguments if they simply can’t produce enough to make their points. I’ve seen students who couldn’t even finish an exam, let alone write anything of value. I can only applaud what North Carolina is doing.”
Author of four books on the American labor movement, Weir maintains cursive is still an important skill for graphic designers, architects, and journalists.
Historians also rely heavily on knowledge of cursive in transcribing and analyzing older texts, Leising said.
Research on how children’s brains develop indicates cursive is a crucial skill. In a mid-sized suburban Michigan school district, last year Hanover Research studied the effects of handwriting instruction on students to help the district decide whether to toss cursive because Common Core does not require it. They concluded elementary students need “at least 15 minutes of handwriting daily for cognitive, writing skills, and reading comprehension improvement,” said Sidney Phillips, Hanover’s senior vice president of development.
“I think there’s an overemphasis on technical integration in the classroom with minimal research done,” he said. “Many districts that have a technological component are a little behind [in related research].”
Opponents of teaching cursive in schools argue a student can easily learn to read it without hours of writing practice.
However, “there is a vast gap between understanding how to do something and having facility with a skill,” Weir said. “The generally accepted standard is that it takes 100 days of steady practice to move to proficiency in most things involving body memory. Master level is even longer.”
Leising points to research by Karin James, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at Indiana University, that further supports teaching cursive.
Using brain imaging technology, James has confirmed printed writing is far better than typing at stimulating the cognitive growth and development of small children in areas such as connecting letters, learning to read from left to right, and reading more effectively.
“There are many things for which cursive is no longer needed and, as an educator, I’d far rather read a printed paper than a handwritten one,” Weir said. “That said, I still see cursive as a skill we need to have, much like most other practical skills.”
Image by Richard Peat.