Any school child knows the three “Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. It seems a given that these three skills will always form the backbone of a child’s educational development. Yet for students who graduated from elementary school before 2010, visiting a modern-day classroom may contain some noticeable differences.
In particular, one might notice the absence of cursive, the style of penmanship marked by conjoined letters. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCS), a set of benchmarks in math and English designed for kindergarten through twelfth grade, has set off a debate over handwriting and cursive and when—or even if—such skills should still be taught.
“The Common Core State Standards were developed through a state-led effort in 2009 and 2010 and published in June 2010,” says Olympia Meola, press secretary for the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization that co-sponsored the standards.
“Since then, states have voluntarily chosen to adopt the Common Core, or chosen to develop other standards that prepare students for college and careers. There is not a standard specific to cursive writing in the Common Core; instead, these standards give schools and teachers the flexibility to teach cursive writing in the classroom. States also have the flexibility to adopt standards above and beyond the Common Core State Standards.”
To date, 42 of the 50 U.S. states have adopted the CCS, but only 14 have passed laws requiring cursive proficiency. Everyone from local, state, and federal officials to educators, psychologists, and scientists are sharply divided on the issue. Cursive’s defenders say it’s a valuable skill and can aid in word proficiency; its detractors call it a waste of time and want more relevant skill building, like keyboarding.
Steve Graham, Warner professor at Arizona State University’s School of Education, says that the benefits of handwriting can be boiled down to a few essential elements. “There’s different styles of handwriting: there’s manuscript, which is a stick and ball; there’s cursive, which has joined letters; and there’s italics,” he says.
“There’s other forms as well, but the two that have dominated this country are manuscript and cursive.” Graham says that in looking at these two forms of script and considering their benefits, it’s helpful to think in terms of reader and writer effects.
There’s evidence that suggests if your handwriting is less legible, then people form negative opinions about what you’re saying.
“By reader effects, what you’re really talking about in terms of handwriting … is if it’s hard to read what’s written because the handwriting is not legible or less legible, then that influences the reader. And second, there’s evidence that suggests if your handwriting is less legible, then people form negative opinions about what you’re saying.”
Knowing this, Graham says, the question becomes which is more legible: cursive or manuscript? “If you ask a person on the street, usually they’ll say manuscript,” he says. “But the reality is that there’s not much real difference in terms of legibility, if you have an equal amount of practice in both.”
In terms of writer effects, Graham says the thing to look at is automaticity. “The more automatic you are, usually the more fluent you are,” he says. “If you’re writing something by hand or you’re typing it, and your ideas are coming really fast but you’re not such a good typist or you’re not really quick with handwriting, then ideas might slip away out of your working memory as you’re trying to write them down.”
Graham points out this is something that happens to all writers, no matter how efficient they are. But it highlights the fact that someone’s dexterity with handwriting can interfere with other processes, like content generation.
Do we need to teach two forms of handwriting, or should we just teach one?
“So the question [now] is, which is faster: cursive, or manuscript?” Graham says. “If you ask the typical person on the street, the answer you’ll get is, ‘cursive’s faster.’ But when you actually look at the data, as long as there’s an equal amount of practice, then there’s not much difference. You might get a little edge for cursive for the speed issue, and for the legibility issue, you get a little bit of an edge for manuscript. …So, the question becomes: Do we need to teach two forms of handwriting, or should we just teach one? My opinion on this, given that’s such a crowded curriculum, is we should teach one.”
Graham’s assertion is that people are overreacting over the loss of cursive. “I think too much has been made of this issue,” he says.
In Arizona, you have state legislators passing a law that you have to teach cursive handwriting.
“In Arizona, you have state legislators passing a law that you have to teach cursive handwriting. Come on, give me a break—they don’t have anything better to do, that they need to be legislating what teachers teach in terms of … handwriting? I think this is one of these things [where] we assume we’re losing something, and I’m not exactly sure what we’re losing by teaching one versus teaching two, as long as we teach one well.”
Yet Virginia Berninger, an experimental and licensed clinical psychologist and professor emerita at the University of Washington, says that the loss of cursive puts students at a real disadvantage, particularly those with learning disabilities. Berninger has been involved in a number of studies that she says show the unique benefits of cursive on understanding letter formation.
For instance, a longitudinal study showed that when comparing manuscript, cursive, and keyboarding from students from grades four to seven, “It was the cursive that was uniquely contributing to [children’s] spelling and to their composing quality,” she says.
“We think that’s because with cursive, there are connecting strokes that link the letters, and we think that helps with creating those word units representing what you need for spelling.” Since cursive was originally invented to speed up writing, being able to write faster may have given students a composing advantage.
Berninger goes on to say that for students with learning disabilities in reading and writing, the physical act of handwriting is often beneficial. “What we’ve learned in our research in the last six years, is that even if a learning disability involves reading, like pronouncing words or reading comprehension, it still has writing problems associated with it,” she says.
This correlation between reading and writing in learning disabled children has largely been ignored. “Dyslexia is not just a reading disability,” she says. “In addition to word reading, the more persistent problems … are spelling problems. That can affect [a child’s] composing.”
Berninger’s recommendation then, contrary to Graham’s, is that children should be taught to be hybrid writers. “You teach manuscript first for two years, and then you teach them the cursive,” she says.
In due time, cursive will help with spelling and composing.
Teaching manuscript alone has its own benefits. “Teaching printing, we found in several studies, transfers to improving your word reading. We think because the production of the letters enhances perception of the letters. So that helps with reading, and in due time, cursive will help with spelling and composing.”
Berninger says it doesn’t even take that much to teach a student good handwriting. “People say, ‘With everything else we have to do, how can we possibly find time to teach handwriting?’ Well actually, it only takes five or 10 minutes a day, or even three times a week, and you really can accomplish a lot,” she says.
In other fields, like medicine and law, you do have members of the community that more actively participate in making the standards. For whatever reason, we have not accorded that privilege to the teachers.
Part of the issue for Berninger is that the Common Core standards are not written by actual educators. “We have people who are legislators, government regulars, educational policy people … they’re the ones that are writing these standards,” she says.
“Rarely if ever have they been classroom teachers, actually working with kids. We do think this is a critical issue—we’re not getting enough of the voice of the classroom teacher into making these standards and policies. In other fields, like medicine and law, you do have members of the community that more actively participate in making the standards. For whatever reason, we have not accorded that privilege to the teachers.”
One area in which Graham and Berninger agree is that there needs to be more keyboarding taught in the classroom. “It’s a changing world in terms of how we compose,” Graham says. “If you’re not at school, most composing isn’t done by hand now, it’s done digitally, or by spoken word when you speak into your phone.”
But Berninger says that in her research, she found that students don’t usually start to see benefits from keyboarding until they get to seventh grade.
This idea that we just need to use the technology, we don’t need our ‘old fashioned’ tools, it’s a mindset that we need to be a bit more cautious about in general.
She believes this might be because handwriting uses only one hand, but keyboarding uses both. Developmentally, right brain/left brain myelination doesn’t mature until early adolescence. It could also be due to the fact that keyboarding skills are neglected in the classroom. “Schools in general are not teaching kids to use the computers, the keyboarding part,” she says. “And so it may just be there hasn’t been as much instruction.”
Still, Berninger doesn’t believe that typing should ever replace handwriting. “Every problem we’re going to solve, we’re going to create technology for it,” she says. “So this idea that we just need to use the technology, we don’t need our ‘old fashioned’ tools, it’s a mindset that we need to be a bit more cautious about in general. That’s led to the dismissal of the importance of handwriting.”
But Graham says the real problem is a myopic focus on handwriting as just one of many skills students need to be good writers. He says that out of 20 or so interviews he does a year on the subject of writing, eight out of 10 of those focus on handwriting alone. Only two are about writing more generally.
“That’s an odd balance, to be honest,” he says. “Handwriting is one of many skills that one needs to master to become a skilled writer. Students don’t write very well, and we don’t do a very good job of teaching it in schools. But we seem to be maniacally focused on handwriting.” He adds, “I don’t want to take away anything from handwriting, but it seems out of balance.”