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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cursive Writing: It Is Time For A Different Approach


Many school districts are burdened with dwindling budgets and increasing class sizes. Resources are at a premium, and the teaching institution itself is at a crossroads of old and new. Common Core and new ideologies seem to be at odds with traditional and time-honored classroom practices. While this dynamic arena of educational tug-of-war plays out, best practices bloom unexpectedly in these times of directional discord. 

School districts all around the country have been making decisions which address the dilemma of resource management. In local school districts there has been a reduction in, and in some cases a complete removal of, such traditional classes as physical education, music, art, science and health. In light of this, it stands to reason that a practical approach is taken as we tighten our collective belts and ride out these transitional times. It is interesting to me that we don’t do what is sensible, for example, and discontinue the required learning of traditional “looped” cursive writing in primary school.

While researching this topic, many of the objections to this view that were raised in comments, and sometimes in the actual articles, were of an emotional nature. “How will people read the Constitution?” “What about being able to read Grandma’s letters?” and “Cursive will become a dead language” are some examples. However, some of the objections seemed to be very scientific or factual in nature. “What about those improved SAT scores?” “What about increased neural pathways in the brain?” “What about the benefits of cursive writing for people with dyslexia?” The arguments are passionate and sincere. But are they valid? Should school districts utilize valuable time and resources to teach primary school students how to write in cursive?



Be careful when you read or participate in debates about cursive. What I have discovered is that a strong majority of blogs and articles do not discuss cursive exclusively. In fact, nearly all of the blogs and articles I examined, including studies and research findings, relied upon lumping cursive with italic cursive, or handwriting in general in order to have a report of substance. If not for this addition of similar but not relative data, there would be a woeful lack of information available by which to frame an argument.

It is important to make the distinction between Palmer Method, or “looped” cursive, italic cursive and printed text. I advocate the hand-eye coordination which is so crucially required in early learning by promoting the use of printed text or italic cursive instead of looped cursive. Palmer Method is what we all learned and know as “traditional,” or “looped” cursive. Printed text is what we all learned and know as the first alphabet we learned how to write. Italic cursive is a modern derivative of italic script, which is also known as chancery cursive. This modern version of italic cursive was created by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay in 1976, and is known as the Getty-Dubay style.

I would like to emphasize that I am not against teaching handwriting in the form of printed text or italic cursive. Studies show that the kinesthetic involvement required of handwriting in general has a tremendous effect on learning development at an early age[1], and printed text makes sense to know and understand. After all, think for a moment how many written communications around you are in printed text. Newspapers, books, internet articles. Everything, right? Now consider what, other than a signature, is actually written in looped cursive. What important documents that you have are written in cursive? Your house deed? Car title? Insurance policy? Any contract? In fact, think of how many legal documents and applications actually tell you to “please print.”

Italic cursive, although seemingly obscure in educational systems, shows promise as the emerging best practice anyway[2]. Because many students struggle at an early age to learn looped cursive, italic cursive may be a natural alternative. The first learned alphabet is printed text. Italic cursive resembles that style more than looped cursive. The transition to italic cursive is more natural than looped cursive, and provides a more familiar framework by which to learn. This is a prime example of Lev Vygotsky’s scaffolding method. Vygotsky and the scaffolding method are required study for teachers, and Vygotsky is recognized as a fundamental influence regarding modern education practices.

It is extremely important that students continue to practice the printing of numbers and upper- and lower-case letters, as this activity not only increases a student’s ability to learn, it creates neural pathways in the brain[3]. It is also important to note that any fine motor skill and problem solving activity has an impact on neural pathway development. There is no dependable study that shows any appreciable difference in mental ability when cursive writing is studied exclusively.

In other words, the fine motor skills required when you learn to tie your shoes will create neural pathways in the brain. These pathways will be different from those created by learning cursive writing, playing video games, or following a flying bird with your eyes. Are any of those pathways any more significant than any of the others? This is something that studies do not yet show, and therefore should not be considered as any kind of credible indication otherwise.

An option is to replace cursive writing with technology study altogether. By not presenting looped or italic cursive in the formative years, the students may then have an opportunity to learn something more immediately useful, like typing by touch, internet research or computer programming languages. As long as they are already familiar with printed text, the students are able to communicate and read. This is a great starting point for the interjection of technological learning.



There is the argument that the fine art of cursive writing will be lost forever if we discontinue its use in the early grades. The resulting knee-jerk concern has created a wave of sympathy for how important it is to know how to read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or grandma’s letters, for the sake of tradition and heritage. The outcry has been that only specialists will be able to read our most important historic documents, and that our society shall henceforth reject cursive permanently.

Some of the more dramatic arguments include the notion that cursive will go the way of hieroglyphics or Latin, to be used by the public nevermore. However, like Latin or hieroglyphics, cursive of any kind may be an acquired taste, when it comes to writing, much like calligraphy. For this reason, writing cursive is not necessary so early in the formative educational years. Like Latin or hieroglyphics, people will always be there to preserve the heritage of cursive for the sake of human interest. Having said that, learning to write in looped cursive has nothing to do with reading the Declaration of Independence. In fact, people who never learn to write looped cursive can still easily master the ability to read it.

Learning to write cursive and learning to read cursive are separate matters. Reading archaic cursive does not require that a person know how to write it. It takes less than a day to learn to read cursive with ease. It takes years to learn how to write it properly[4].

With this in mind, granny will appreciate the effort taken to spend a day learning how to read cursive. As for the Constitution of the United States of America or the Declaration of Independence, they aren’t even written in modern cursive. As elaborate as the writing is on those documents, I doubt if half of the people who write in cursive these days can even read either of those historical documents in full!

As you contemplate the need for looped cursive writing, I ask you this - Which is easier to read, most people’s printed text or most people’s cursive? These days it is acceptable to write in an amalgamation of both printing and cursive for most adults, which leads to a vast array of writing styles.  With no continuity or standard, the variety of styles creates a situation where sloppy and unreadable cursive is more the rule than the exception.

While it is stated by many that looped cursive is faster to write than printing, if it isn’t legible then it is worthless as a communication tool. Besides, studies have shown that italic cursive is more legible and faster than either printed text or looped cursive, so if the argument is for the most efficient type of writing, looped cursive isn’t it anyway[5].

Another misconception is that we need to learn cursive so that we can sign important legal documents. The truth is that our signature can be whatever we want it to be[5]. You may scrawl your full name in elegant flowing letters. You may use your first initials and last name, printed in block script. Or you may do as one of my borrowers did once, when I was a loan processor. On every document that required his signature (over a dozen documents) it was consistent and unique. It looked like he doodled within the same square inch for about thirty seconds. The result was a signature that roughly resembled a jumbled sunflower. My borrower’s signature was as valid as if he had signed with only an “X.” If you are still skeptical, ask any attorney.



As previously mentioned, writing in cursive has been proven to create neural pathways differently than other means of fine motor skills combined with problem solving or similar activity. This process is a natural one for humans. We create neural pathways every day. It is misleading when much attention is placed on this isolated but common physiological process. Yes, this particular neural pathway (looped cursive) will not be created when students are young. This is insignificant in the bigger picture, when other repetitive and focused activities create neural pathways as well. A stronger argument is that those pathways need to be built with the knowledge of modern technology, or even with a more efficient type of writing, such as italic cursive.

The argument here is not that our young students are missing out by not creating looped cursive neural pathways in their brains. The argument should be more along the lines of how the development of these pathways are constructed. If there is a possibility to influence this learning, shouldn’t it be utilized efficiently and effectively? Don’t we owe it to our future generations to offer them the best chance to compete globally? There simply is not any credible evidence to support the notion that the pathways created by looped cursive writing are any more or less important than pathways created by other means. As a result, it is better safe than sorry to teach young minds more about computers and the internet, or science,  money handling or any other number of related, relevant subjects instead of looped cursive.

Many of the researched articles pointed toward a 2006 study showing that students who learn looped cursive early perform better on their SAT tests[6]. None of the articles provided specific numbers, so I looked into it a bit closer. As it turns out, the difference is insignificant. On a twelve point scale, the average writing score of those who did not use cursive was 7.0. The average writing score of those who did use cursive was - get this - a whopping 7.2 out of 12! Neither score should be considered optimal. When you create a percentage using the scores, the looped cursive students performed at a 60% level, and the non-cursive students performed at a 58% level.

In addition, the same report states that only fifteen percent of the students used looped cursive to answer the written portion of their SAT test. This means that the sample of students who did not use cursive was more than five and-a-half times larger than the student sample of those who used cursive. This evidence is skewed, and would not be considered valid or fair by any measure. If a person has to dig this deep to find evidence that cursive should remain in the curriculum, then they really don’t have a good case. To tout this study as hard evidence is shameful.

There is some evidence that looped cursive can be helpful for those with dyslexia and other reading disorders, such as dysgraphia[7]. Studies have shown a valid relationship between writing cursive and improved writing skills in certain groups of people who otherwise have trouble reading. The connectivity of the letters apparently forces the student to continue to the next letter without having to interrupt their stroke to do so. In this way, looped cursive writing has been shown to improve the skills of those with certain delayed reading abilities.

There are a few commonly referenced sources that proponents of looped cursive use in their arguments. In addition to the SAT fallacy, two studies are leaned upon as significantly worthy sources. The first is a 2012 University of Indiana study, conducted by psychologist Karin James, supposedly demonstrating enhanced mental skills after learning looped cursive. However, further research shows that the only mental skill tested was a specific type of memory. Due to the preliminary and untested nature of the study, any results must be taken as not definitive or useful for serious discussion.

Another study often cited is a University of Washington work by psychologist Virginia Berninger that describes the results of handwriting as opposed to printing and keyboarding.  The study is often referred to as solid evidence that cursive creates unique pathways in the brain. While this is true, what is left out is that there are also unique pathways for keyboarding and printing. This study offers no comparison among the three techniques regarding effectiveness in learning. Again, a source with only the flimsiest attachment to the topic, and indicative of sloppy or deceptive research.

In addition to cherry picking information, many of the articles I came across were op-ed pieces. As you do your own research, be extremely careful that the studies and sources are referencing looped cursive, and not handwriting in general. If you are reading the articles critically then you will notice that if you go through an article and take out any information not related specifically to looped cursive there will be little or nothing left as evidence. You may also notice that I use some of the very same sources as some of looped cursive’s supporters. This is to show that the articles have value when used appropriately, and the information isn’t grossly skewed.



School administrators and educators continue to struggle with smaller budgets and changing academic platforms. They are burdened with the task of categorizing budgetary priorities. Many communities are feeling the pinch of this dilemma. Sometimes teachers are scapegoats, and the public turns on them, blaming educators for failing to know how to teach cursive in school. The issue today is NOT that the teachers don't use the proper technique. The issues today are that classrooms are larger, technology is moving along at a rapid clip, and teachers are under-resourced.

Meanwhile, new criteria and standards have cropped up. Common Core is the rallying cry of the day, and there is no mention of cursive writing in the instructions[8]. In fact, the Common Core uses keyboarding ability to measure and benchmark the student standards. Handwriting or cursive is never mentioned. The guidelines require mastery in various stages of written communication throughout school. Priority is the emphasis on the ability to communicate effectively with a keyboard. Families and communities face an important learning curve as our students crave and demand a chance to compete on a global scale. This will only happen if the next generations of students are allowed to keep up with the torrential shifts in technology, including keyboarding as a tool, functional for any phase of internet communication. The sooner we instill this knowledge in our youth, the sooner they will be ready to legitimately compete on a global scale. 

Comparatively, cursive does not even compete as a tool for communication. Could you imagine having a race between how many people you can reach with cursive compared to the keyboard and internet? The technology learning path is certainly important enough to begin instruction as early as possible.

If this means the displacement of looped cursive, so be it. My contention is NOT that we simply replace cursive with keyboards. More to the point, once a student learns printing and penmanship, or even italic cursive, then there is no need for looped cursive until later, as an elective. It makes more sense at the earliest point in time to gear the student to be competitive in the real world with technology skills. The brings me to my first offered solution:

- Students can take cursive with calligraphy as an elective in high school or college

-An efficient creative writing class could incorporate cursive as a requisite for completion.
This drama about losing the ability to read or write looped cursive as a culture is silly. Those who value cursive will continue to learn it. Those who don't will not be burdened with it. Both of those people can become well-versed in computers and internet and they will be on an even keel with others in the world. 

- Develop cursive as a learning tool for those with reading disabilities

If a method has a purpose, by all means put it to use. In this case, if looped cursive is helpful for those with dyslexia, it needs to be an active part of treatment for afflicted students. In a world where there is an ever greater need for methods to help those with disabilities, it only makes sense to look toward cursive and any other type of breakthrough that may ease the burden for the students.

- Use italic cursive

The fastest and most accurate way known to write is italic cursive. This is a hybrid of printed text, italicized and connected.  Studies show that this method not only produces the best results when testing for legibility, it also allows the student to process information quicker than with cursive or printed manuscript.

- Enroll your student in additional summer classes or hire a tutor

It is beneficial for students to exercise their academic minds as much as possible over the summer. Looped cursive and calligraphy are good ways to work this into an otherwise casual schedule. Even if the student is as old as middle or high school, they will certainly benefit from learning cursive, and using it as a tool for exercising their learning potential. Look for classes or workshops through your local clubs and organizations. This is also a good time to hire a tutor once a week to provide exercises and lessons for the student as they develop their cursive skills. 

- Do it yourself

The quote I used to open this article provides the best advice. I know we all have busy schedules, but so do teachers. Their job is to prepare our young people for the world ahead of them. This means that teachers must conform their busy schedules around the most pressing priorities. This results in teachers adapting the curriculum to involve as much technology as possible. If your concern is that little Johnny or Susie cannot read the Constitution or grandma’s letters, take the time one day to teach them to read looped cursive. If they already know the alphabet in printed manuscript then they will be able to quickly learn how to read in cursive. Even if you don’t have the time to teach them how to write in cursive, at least your fears about them being illiterate in looped cursive will be put to rest.

I am still searching, but I have found very little factual information to justify clinging to an archaic tradition when printed text is perfectly acceptable and easier to read. Feeling sad about losing a tradition is not a reason to continue to use valuable resources, which are in high demand and short supply, to teach a topic that has little use in the competitive real world. It is time to let go of looped cursive as an early academic tool. I would also question anyone who is a strong supporter for keeping it around. After researching the topic, it is clear to me that anyone who is an advocate for looped cursive preservation either has not researched the topic very well, they are purposely deceiving you for some reason, or they are simply ignorant and wanting to cling to tradition.

For me, the debate surrounding teaching cursive writing as a required course, especially in these turbulent educational times boils down to this:

Unless there is a valid, logical, advantageous reason to keep cursive, then there is no valid, logical, advantageous reason to keep cursive. 
[1] - Konnikova, Maria. “What’s Lost As Handwriting Fades?” (2014)
[2] Phillips, Jason. Dundas Valley Montessori School. “To Write Or Not To Write: Teaching Cursive In Montessori.” (2014)
 [3] - Pub Med. “Early Development Of Language By Hand: Composing, Reading, Listening, And Speaking Connections; Three Letter-Writing Modes; And Fast Mapping In Spelling.” Abstract. (2006)
[4] - Long, Cindy. “Does Cursive Need To Be Taught In The Digital Age?” (2013). Quoted by Kate Gladstone, handwriting expert and educator.
[5] - Dubay, Inga and Getty, Barbara. “Yes, It's Time To Stop One Form Of Cursive Writing, Even Some Cursive Experts Agree.” (2011).
[6] - College Board. “College Board Announces Scores For New SAT With Writing Section.” (2006).
[7] - Wydell, Taeko N. “Dyslexia - A Comprehensive And International Approach.” Montgomery, Diane. Chapter 7 - “The Contribution Of Handwriting And Spelling Remediation To Overcoming Dyslexia.” p. 128 (2012)
[8] - Common Core website. “English Language Arts Standards » Writing » Introduction.” (2014).

Stephen L. Wilson
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