Sunday, May 5, 2013

Is cursive a thing of the past?

cursive writing sample
 Photo via Flickr

My aunt, an English professor, recently shared a story with me about one of her students. Her student, a college freshman, approached her to talk about a paper he recently turned in. When she asked if he had a question about a specific comment that she had written on his paper, his response was, "Well, I can't read what you wrote. I can't read cursive."


My aunt was shocked. As an OT, I was surprised, but not shocked. I've spent a lot of time in elementary classrooms, and I know that many students are no longer being taught cursive. In fact, many students are not even being properly taught how to print! [side note - I'd like to point out that this is at no fault of the teachers and this issue probably requires its own blog post]

Is cursive dead?

The New York Times recently ran a Room for Debate column on Is Cursive Dead? The lovely folks over at PediaStaff were kind enough to bring this article to my attention and asked if I cared to weigh in on the discussion.

Okay, okay. So I've seen first hand that cursive is not being taught in schools. But what is my opinion on the demise of cursive? The big question here is:

Should schools require children to learn cursive?

In my opinion, no.

I learned to write in cursive in third grade. And I loved it! I thought it was fun. And so grown-up! And then, with the exception of a fifth grade teacher who required everything be written in cursive, I immediately stopped writing in cursive. Which means I have not regularly written in cursive since I was 10 years old. That was 20 years ago!

The times are changing, whether we like it or not, and it's time for our curriculum to reflect that.

Should students be exposed to cursive?


Should students know how to read cursive?

Absolutely. After all, it's really not that different from print. Learn what the following 10 letters look like in cursive and you should be able to read cursive without too much difficulty: b, e, f, m, n, r, s, u, v, z.

Should students be able to sign their name in cursive?

Yes, even if it quickly turns into an illegible scribble unique to them, because that's all they need to be functional in this digital world.

Should students learn to write using paper and pencil?

Yes, but that doesn't mean it needs to be in cursive.

Should students learn how to effectively use technology for writing essays? For taking notes? For communicating?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Cursive in the age of technology

So where does cursive fit in in today's technological world? We still have to sign documents and receipts, even though many of those signatures are now done electronically. As an occupational therapist, I sign my name on reports, progress notes, daily notes, IEPs, etc. For most adults, there's really no way around the signature.

But, with the exception of my occasionally legible signature, I only write in cursive when I am helping a student learn to write their name in cursive.

Wait. Let's think about this for a minute. I only use cursive when I'm teaching students how to write in cursive. After all that I've written above, when do I expect that they will ever use cursive in their lives? The answer is, I don't expect students today to ever use cursive. But as an occupational therapist, I want my students to be functional and independent, which I believe does include a cursive signature. After reading this article from NPR about the fading away of the signature, I'm beginning to question the relevance of a signature in today's world. Maybe the merit of a signature will come up in a future Room for Debate :-)

Some final food for thought for OTs and educators.

Why are we so insistent that students learn cursive? Is cursive really the best option for certain students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia? If so, where is the research to support it? Where are the studies that provide evidence of the benefits of cursive writing on brain development?

Are we holding onto cursive purely because of nostalgia?

Does a legible signature even matter these days?

To hear more thoughts on cursive in this era of technology, check out PediaStaff's roundup of posts written by occupational therapists in response to the Room for Debate article!

Please weigh in with your thoughts on this conversation in the comments below. I would love to see this conversation continue.


  1. Hey! :) I just want to say that your aunt's student isn't all that uncommon...when I took the SATs last year, a lotttt of people in the class struggled to write that one little paragraph in cursive, to the point where the proctor allowed them to write it in print.

    Also, my piano teacher (who is an older woman) would always write in cursive, and then one day she asked me if I would like her to write in print instead, because she had recently realized that several of her students had trouble reading her writing! I can read cursive pretty well, so it didn't bother me, but I know that it's an issue for many people.

    When we were first learning cursive (back in third grade), our teachers told us that in fourth grade, EVERYONE writes in cursive. Not true at all! I haven't been required to write in cursive since third grade, and there are a few capital cursive letters that I've forgotten how to write!

  2. About that SAT paragraph requirement— A few months ago, I queried the College Board (which created and administers the SAT) about its possible effects. The College Blard public relations director, Katherine Levin, pointed out to me that the instructions for that infamous paragraph don't even use the word "cursive" — what they say is "do not print," and the College Board regards as "not printing" literally _any_ handwriting which isn't entirely composed of a sequence of unjoined BLOCK CAPITALS.

    Ms. Levin also pointed out to me that the purpose of that paragraph — technically known as the "certification statement" — is to provide a handwriting sample in case the College Board later suspects that somebody cheated by hiring another person to take the exam under false ID. Whenever the College Board suspects that, they investigate by comparing the exam-room sample (the certification statement) with handwriting done by the student at other times: which is the reason that the certification statement instructions _also_ include a directive that the examinee should write in his/her "usual handwriting" . (The obvious implication is that, if your usual handwriting isn't cursive but you use cursive on the certification statement because you assumed that this is what had to be meant by "do not print," you may have some trouble proving to the SAT people that you are who you say you are.)

  3. Dear AbbyPediatricOT —

    THANK YOU for writing your article! It makes many valid points — which could have been further supported if you had known the real situation about signatures.

    In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

    All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which student produced it.

    Other important facts about handwriting, which support the case for ending the cult of cursive:

    • Research shows that the fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

    • Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?

    • Adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When even most handwriting teachers shun cursive and won't use it as their own handwriting, why prioritize it?


    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May - June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September - October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone

    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest

  4. Thank you! This is such well thought out presentation.

    As to signatures: I have never learned the cursive as it is commonly known. My signature is my variation of the italic method that I have teaching and writing about for almost 40 years.

    With all the current problems with handwriting, I wonder if this method that conforms so easily to natural hand movements will become popular. It's nothing really new. It has more than 500 years of history behind it. Curious? Visit me at

  5. Writing cursive can often be EASIER for those with dyslexia or letter reversals because each letter flows into the other. Handwriting isn't just a skill in and of itself. It requires the integration of many other skills.

    I see many problems with the way handwriting is taught in schools today.
    1. There is no standardized curriculum, so children who may have visual perceptual issues can get very confused.
    2. Children are pushed to write too early, and they start poor habits (i.e. starting from the bottom line) which are very hard to break.
    3. No matter what you say, people will judge you by your handwriting.
    4. Handwriting is a great exercise in focus, attention, directionality, body awareness, visual memory, visual perception, and language that are the building blocks of many other academic areas.

  6. I am dyslexic and had severe problems with cursive.
    Letter reversals were certainly part of it — for instance,capital cursive J and lower-case cursive f are reversals of each other — but there were, and are, bigger problems:

    • Letters that change shape between styles (for instance: when a letter that has two humps, it's an "n" in cursive but it's an "n"

    • Letters that change shape after other cursive letters (for instance, think how the letters "r" and "s" look when they're written after an "o" in "port" and "post" compared with how they look after an "a" as in "part" and "past"

    • The requirement to keep the pen on the paper at all times made it impossible to discern where the letter ended and a join began. "Letters flowing together" wasn't a solution for me — it was a PROBLEM! (And it didn't stop being a problem when teacher after teacher, aide after aide, explained to me that it wasn't a problem.)

    Another way to recognize that cursive doesn't help all dyslexics as much as some non-dyslexics love to suppose — keep in mind that dyslexia was first discovered 'way back in 1887 (by Dr. Rudolf Berlin, who named the condition), back when cursive was VERY heavily emphasized in all basic education. The problems he found with his cursive-writing dyslexics then — including all those reversals, which cursive is claimed to prevent or cure — are then problems found with dyslexics today, whether they have been trained to write print-style or cursive-style or (for that matter) Japanese.

  7. A video on problems of cursive writing:

  8. Videos on the state of our handwriting, past and present:



    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —


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