Do we need cursive anymore?

Kids aren’t learning cursive anymore, reports the Associated Press. Katie Van Sluys, a professor at De Paul University and president of Whole Language Umbrella, says that students have difficulty seeing the relevance of handwriting. They use computers at home, so schools should reflect this. “We need to make sure they’ll be ready for what’s going to happen in 2020 or 2030,” she says. “They’re writing, they’re composing with these tools at home, and to have school look so different from that set of experiences is not the best idea.”

Not all agree. Sharon Spencer, a teacher at Mountaineer Montessori in Charleston, teaches her students cursive starting in first grade. She believes that it helps with muscle control and coordination, and argues that one can’t always count on having a computer at hand. “In the age of computers,” she says, “I just tell the children, what if we are on an island and don’t have electricity? One of the ways we communicate is through writing.”

The most ambiguous point comes from Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who, according to the article, “cites multiple studies showing that sloppy handwriting routinely leads to lower grades, even in papers with the same wording as those written in a neater hand”:

Graham argues that fears over the decline of handwriting in general and cursive in particular are distractions from the goal of improving students’ overall writing skills. The important thing is to have students proficient enough to focus on their ideas and the composition of their writing rather than how they form the letters.

Yes, but does that mean students should or shouldn’t learn cursive? How will students become proficient writers if they can’t form letters (or type) quickly?

There are at least two questions here. First, are there compelling reasons to continue to teach cursive handwriting? Second, how can we ensure that students become proficient in forming letters, whether in handwriting or through typing?

For the first, I can only speculate. I would favor keeping some kind of handwriting instruction in the schools, because it has a different quality from typing, especially typing on a computer keyboard. There is greater commitment when you write on paper, and at the same time more of a “draft” sense at the outset. On the computer, you can simply delete what you don’t like, and you can turn a draft into a final version without showing any words crossed out or changed. The revision is often hidden (unless you use Track Changes or version control). Why does this matter? For one thing, those crossed-out words often trigger good ideas; they also can help us see what is going astray.

On the other hand, the keyboard is an “equalizer” for those who struggle with handwriting. And there are situations where it is simply handy to delete a mistake instead of writing the whole thing over again.

Also (in favor of handwriting), unless students use laptops in every class from the early grades up, they will still need to do much of their work in handwriting. There will still be many situations that call for written statments, essays, letters, and more. There will still be diaries. For that reason alone, they should learn to write by hand. Why cursive? Once learned, it can be more fluid than print. But I would settle for print or cursive, as long as students can write fluently. Others, such as Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld, point out the benefits of cursive over print and hybrid handwriting styles.

The second question is easier to answer. Schools should teach typing and handwriting. Students may find down the road that they type 90 percent of the time, but at least they will have the choice. It should be part of the curriculum in the early grades, and there should be workshops in the later grades for those who did not learn it. I have had many middle-school students who typed with their forefingers only (looking for each letter as they went along). It took much effort for them even to do a Google search. Some children are quite agile when texting with their thumbs, but they depend on the shortness and abbreviations of the text message. If we turn into a “texting” culture we will limit what is actually said and will encourage what American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron calls a “sloppy or laissez-faire” attitude toward the mechanics of writing.

The times may be a-changing, but the need for writing remains. Students should learn the mechanics so that mechanics won’t get in their way.


  1. Cursive is faster than printing, this is true. Printing, however, is much more legible. There are many cases in their lives when they will be forced to print. I can think of none in which they would be forced to use cursive. Apart from signing my name, I have completely eliminated it in my own life.

    Anything of any appreciable length will be typed. The few times in which I was called upon to handwrite at length, say on a college exam, I just sucked it up. I no more see the need to teach cursive writing than to teach how to set letters in a printing press. There are so many more skills they need, like how to actually compose text instead of simply writing words, that I say dump it.

    Let those who wish to learn it do so. The majority of people, however, are better off learning how to legibly print and compose proper text than they are making their letters pretty.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Handwriting is like painting or sculpture… an art form. Mastering it promotes discipline and attention to detail, as well as an appreciation for aesthetics. It just happens that cursive is a particularly practical artform, and we sometimes get lost in thinking about it solely in terms of its (perhaps diminishing) practical value.

    As for kids learning to type… one of the reasons that children are no good at typing is that they are children. They haven’t developed the reflexes yet. I took a single semester of typing in 8th grade and got just about nothing from it. Then I went to college and discovered the joys of text-based online role playing games, where there was quite a bit of pressure to be both eloquent and FAST in one’s typing. Three years of that turned me from 35 wpm to around 110 wpm. I still don’t use the proper home keys, but I use all of my fingers — they sort of float above the keyboard more or less in an ADFB-BJKP configuration, darting down from on high at whatever angle is necessary to hit a particular key. But the key to increasing my speed was just practice, LOTS and LOTS of practice. Have any kid spend 2,000 hours typing out passages and they will be able to “type” proficiently. But most kids haven’t yet put in the practice, so they do not yet have the skills.

    Which leads to my last point (again about typing): I think it’s much, much easier to learn to type after you’ve developed your ability to compose and write in complete sentences. There is a HUGE difference between typing “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy white dogs” for 2,000 hours, and typing up a story that you are writing in your head as you go along. Verbal proficiency should precede typing instruction… and the sort of verbal proficiency I’m thinking of doesn’t really start to develop in strength until around age 12 or 13 (if it develops at all… but that’s another question for another day). If I’m right about this (and I could be wrong) then it may be another reason to teach handwriting; students in elementary school simply may not be ready for typing instruction.

  3. I wish my math and science students knew how to write (in cursive) or print neatly. Pretty much ALL of the “first drafts” in mathematics are handwritten; even the best mathematics word processors are just too clumsy to allow the rapid notation required to derive a formula or complete a proof.

    Many of my students can only write sentences using the Roman alphabet ineptly with slapdash punctuation; mathematics’ unfamiliar Greek symbols, precisely nuanced sub- and superscripts, hats, tildes, vectors, dots, and primes leave them gasping. Far too many students spoil their problems simply because they’ve muddled their notation. And far too many homework sets come to me looking like the deranged ravings of a calculus cargo cultist. If Katie Van Sluys is so friggin’ smart, SHE can come grade my homework sets!

  4. I’ve heard some people complain that editing is too easy on a computer, which leads them to focus on too many small details at the outset of a writing project.

  5. My husband learned Italic penmanship, rather than Palmer, and his writing is fast and legible. I think the fine motor skills and coordination argument is pretty weak–kids develop those faster playing with Legos or (shock horror!) Gameboys.

  6. Diana Senechal says:

    Excellent points, Michael. As you say, cursive is an art form, and we have come to regard it mainly in terms of its practical function.

    There is something contemplative about writing on paper–though the keyboard can allow for contemplation too. Some writers insist on using the mechanical typewriter; they like the resistance of the keys, the way the metal strikes the page, and the special sound.

    Besides contemplation, cursive writing indicates care. When you take the time to write something out in a beautiful hand, you are showing respect–for the occasion, for the subject of your writing, or for your audience. The work of the medieval scribe was considered holy. Granted, we can show a degree of care when typing, but it isn’t quite the same.

    I also see your point that elementary school students may not be ready to learn to type, and that “verbal proficiency should precede typing instruction.” But typing probably does have to start a few years earlier than it did a few decades ago. I didn’t learn to type until I was in my early twenties, and I didn’t suffer for it. Now it is much harder for a high school student to get by without typing.

  7. Diana Senechal says:

    “The deranged ravings of a calculus cargo cultist”–excellent phrase!

  8. I’m not so sure the question is really whether or not they can write in cursive so much as can they read cursive.

  9. I believe all kids need to know how to write – print or cursive is fine with me. However, the skill of putting thoughts on paper and knowing how to spell without relying on spell check is, to me, critical. Even with computers (yes, my younger son learned how to use the keyboard in 5th grade with no problem…most kids can easily do this) kids are still expected to write in many classes.

    I agree with the math comments but also on tests (AP essays many times a week are done in long hand), note taking even on a tablet notebook can be (are?) written in long hand.

    Thank you notes are still a must do (emailed thank you notes just are not personal).

    So…yes, we all need to know how to write. While I always had an”A” in writing today I print and use cursive. I depend on my notes of meetings and phone conversations as much as I did my notes in college. I do not have a single co-worker that takes notes on his/her computer while in a meeting. (I did have a co-worker take notes on his palm pilot — we considered that extremely rude and distracting. The client had no clue what he was doing…)

    Kids need to know how to write legibly in whichever form they choose…

  10. Cursive isn’t entirely dead. My two 6th graders have to write in cursive, for everything.

    They complained about it at first, but they are getting a lot more fluid and faster at it.

    I myself prefer printing… easier to read.

  11. The relative cost for producing a page of notes, during a lecture or presentation, is much lower for someone who possesses legible handwriting. A pen, paper, and a firm surface–which could be your knee, in a pinch.

    The cost of taking notes on a laptop is much higher. I was recently at a meeting, and many people were assiduously taking notes. Not one was taking notes on a laptop. They aren’t that portable.

    I submit that such debates will soon seem like folly, given the astronomical rates of public indebtedness.

  12. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Some systems of connected writing are so complicated they are drawn rather than written. KateC says that her husband uses a rapid and legible italic hand. It is probably sloped, elliptical and rythmic without loops or flourishes. This sort of writing seems to be natural for human hands. Some people don’t consider italic to be cursive but it is connected and can be quickly done yet easy to read.

  13. I’m biased in favor of cursive, as both my older children write beautifully in cursive. My son’s printing is catastrophic, as he began to read and write before kindergarten.

    I think being able to write legibly by hand has become more important than when I was in school. The SAT writing section is here to stay. The yearly state exams require handwritten essays. Many applications for private schools require applicants to submit a handwritten copy of the essay. In an electronic world, there are far too many ways to cheat and plagiarize. One’s handwriting is more easily identified than machine printed text.

  14. I learnt to touch type when I was 10 years old – my school then had about four computers, and the typing programme was one of the most interesting pieces of software on there. I don’t think there’s a particular right age to learn it, it’s just a motor skill after all.

  15. I can’t say whether we SHOULD teach cursive, I just know that an adult can get along just fine without the ability to write in cursive. For a variety of boring reasons, I lost the ability to write in cursive around 1985 or so. Haven’t missed it; regret the time I spent working on it in grade school.

    For those interested in the Palmer method, here is a look back at some old materials from the glory days of teaching handwriting:

  16. I’m with Rob – Palmer was an abomination. I have seen a few scripts that were in fact easier than printing, with equal legibility (my own handwriting in Cyrillic, learned as a freshman in college, is considerably better than in Palmer method). Why aren’t the less-flowery (but quick!) methods the ones that were used?

  17. Andrew Bell says:

    Ask yourself, honestly, is this an important topic? I vote no. Let’s ask next about hand-computation of square roots.

  18. My handwriting was always pretty awful. In 9th grade my parents had me take an afterschool course in italic (and some other calligraphic hands). All it did was put more loops on the chicken scratch!

    I always admired the handwriting my grandmother and all her sisters and sisters-in-law shared. Almost all of them were university-trained teachers of the 1920s and 30s, and they all had more or less the same hand – lovely and legible, up to the day they died.

  19. Oh – despite my horrible handwriting I’m a champion note taker – I’ve been secretary at one point or another for every organization I’ve belonged to (including taking the faculty meeting minutes for 3.5 years here at These Colleges). Taking good notes is a mix of handwriting, personal short hand, and the ability to recall what was said based on minimal written clues. I always typed up my best Minutes 21 days after a meeting (the day before they needed to be sent out).

    I’m sure good note taking and summarizing can be learned – but some of us just have a talent for it.

  20. Not too long ago, Slate published an article about improving one’s handwriting. It had a nice defense of italic script and suggested that the Palmer method is really not the best way to teach handwriting.

  21. It wasn’t until I started taking a course a few years ago that I realized that importance of cursive. The course demands a lot of discussion in a small group and if I dragged along a laptop I’d be not only a little removed from the group but a distraction to others. If I only printed I’d be slow and likely only get half as many notes as I do.

    With cursive I can take notes quickly and quietly. My kids will learn to write cursive.

  22. Like Michael Lopez, I learned to type in college because I played online RPGs and talked to friends on ircle.

    I always take notes on my laptop. At least this way I can easily erase my doodles 😉


  1. […] News Sources wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptKids aren’t learning cursive anymore , reports the Associated Press. Katie Van Sluys, a professor at De Paul University and president of Whole Language Umbrella , says that students have difficulty seeing the relevance of handwriting. They use computers at home, so schools should reflect this. “We need to make sure they’ll be ready for what’s going to happen in 2020 or 2030,” she says. “They’re writing, they’re composing with these tools at home, and to have school look so different from that s […]