cartoon showing kids from the future confused by an example of cursive writing
Cartoon by RJ Matson

Should You Learn Cursive?

Cursive is disappearing from our lives. Should we hold on to it—or let it go?

By Lauren Tarshis
From the May 2021 Issue

 You love writing in cursive, right?  Your pen flies across the page, creating words so beautiful you want to frame them. Wait, what did you say? Your cursive looks like the furious scribbles of a 2-year-old?

Don’t worry. Today, many people believe cursive is a relic of the past and that the ability to use it is way down on the list of what’s important.

For many years, writing in cursive was considered one of the most valuable skills taught in school. Students spent months perfecting tricky q’s and strange-looking z’s. In fact, kids were graded on penmanship the way you are graded in math. Then, about a decade ago, cursive started to vanish.

Recently, cursive has made a bit of a comeback; 21 states currently require schools to teach it. Still, in most states, kids learn to sign their names and not much else. That has raised a debate: Should cursive be taught at school?

A Long History

Cursive, which is any handwriting with letters joined together, often with loops, has been used for centuries. Cursive graffiti can be found on the crumbling walls of ancient Pompeii. The Declaration of Independence was inked in cursive. Thousands of other historical documents—diaries, letters, official records—were written in cursive too.

If we don’t learn cursive, how will we continue to learn from these primary sources? Will important history be forgotten simply because we can’t read someone’s handwriting?

It’s easy to see why cursive was popular for so long. It is faster than writing in print because you don’t lift your pen off the page as often. It’s less messy too, or at least it used to be. In the days before ballpoint pens, people used fragile quill pens that they dipped in ink. The smooth flow of cursive meant fewer broken quill points and ink stains.

Roberts/Classicstock/Everett Collection

If you were a student in the 1940s, you would have spent a lot of time writing cursive on a chalkboard.

21st-Century Skills

Look through your grandparents’ old postcards, journals, love letters. You’ll see their life histories written out in cursive. But today, cursive—and handwriting in general—no longer plays a central role in our lives. We write texts instead of letters. We use Chromebooks instead of notebooks. We post “happy birthday” on Instagram instead of mailing cards.

It’s no wonder learning cursive can seem unnecessary. Why spend precious class time on a skill that will rarely—if ever—be used?

After all, schools have a lot to cover. Core subjects like language arts and math take up most of the school day. Wouldn’t it make sense to devote what little time is left to a skill that could come in handy here in the 21st century—like coding or robotics? Perhaps cursive should be equivalent to band or drama—an elective art form rather than a requirement.

On the other hand, cursive has its benefits. For one thing, it builds fine motor skills—movements that use the tiny muscles in your hands and wrists. (You need fine motor skills to draw, for example, or to button a coat.) Handwriting is also a form of personal expression. No two people’s handwriting is alike.

Writing in cursive can also help you learn. Research has shown that while laptop users are able to take more notes during class, students who write by hand record less but can recall more later.* This is because taking longhand notes forces you to process and paraphrase the information you hear.

The Future

Throughout human history, inventions have made our lives more convenient, more connected, more interesting. And with each new technology, we move forward. But we also leave something behind.

When it comes to cursive, we have to decide: Should it be left in the past or written into our future?

*“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” by Pam A . Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Psychological Science, 2014, Vol. 25.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.

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Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building