Some education issues are like zombies, they just won’t die. Like teaching cursive in schools. Every week brings an article explaining why cursive must be taught in schools, followed quickly by a response as to why it’s a dying skill that needs to be removed from the curriculum.

My experience with cursive as a student wasn’t positive. In my elementary school there was a heavy emphasis on learning “joined-up writing”, and we spent a lot of time practicing. The best samples were displayed on a bulletin board in the hallway so that everyone could gaze at them with wonder and admiration.

I remember very clearly how it felt to see my writing on the board, because it was preceded by months and months of failure. Months of me looking at the handwriting board, not seeing my writing up there and feeling embarrassed. Nothing seemed to help; not fancy writing implements, rewards, bribery, or practice at home. I just couldn’t get it right.

I now know, but didn’t then, that this is a common experience for boys trying to learn cursive. There’s significant evidence that boys struggle more with cursive because of developmental differences in how their brains develop.

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What would we call requiring students to perfect a skill they just don’t have the capacity to learn? Misguided? Cruel? How many students are turned off school at an early age by being forced to practice cursive?

I’ve had an extensive and thoughtful online discussion about the value of teaching cursive with PLN members like Aviva Dunsinger, Valerie Bennett and Cyndie Jacobs. I think it was those discussions that lead me to be interviewed about teaching cursive for Today’s Parent. After that, I thought the “cursive debate” was over. Not so.

Here, I’ll try to emulate Royan Lee‘s fantastic “Podcasts for Pedagogues” series and direct your attention to Freakonomics February 10, 2016 podcast “Who Needs Handwriting?“. If you’re interested at all in the issue of whether schools should be teaching cursive, I recommend you give it a listen.

(Who Needs Handwriting?

Some key learnings for me:

  • Cursive is very definitely on the way out. Only 15 percent of the students who took the 2006 SAT test wrote their answers in cursive.
  • “The Handwriting Effect” shows that there’s a correlation between good handwriting and higher test scores. I think this is probably a reflection of the kind of students who do well on tests and that some teachers think handwriting equates with intelligence.
  • Teaching cursive in schools is a relatively new development, only about 125 years old. There’s a time in the very recent past when schools didn’t teach cursive.
  • Taking notes by hand leads to better long-term comprehension. Fascinating. I’ve started taking some of my notes by hand to see if it makes any difference. This effect reminds me of the benefits of sketchnoting and how it helps with comprehension and understanding. Interacting with a text involves much more than just decoding. (Let me point out that the benefits are not for cursive writing, but any writing)
  • Many of the studies proving the value of handwriting are sponsored by pen and pencil companies.
  • If we needed a sign that writing by hand is dying, at least as an everyday activity, can there be anything more telling than notebooks and pencils have become highly prized luxury items?

The  most interesting part of the discussion about cursive is not whether we should or shouldn’t teach it, but why the debate persists? We’ve had many things added, changed or taken away from the curriculum without the angst cursive has generated. What’s the difference?

The reluctance of some to let go of cursive is evidence of a powerful force in education. Nostalgia.

How we teach and the schools and classrooms we create are, in one way or another, heavily influenced by our experiences as students. If those experiences were positive, we seek to recreate them for our students. If we were told, as a student, that having perfect cursive writing was crucial to your future success, and you were successful, you ascribe some of that success to cursive, and you want those same benefits for the students you teach. The same influences also affect parents and policy makers.

At the heart of the cursive debate is a question. What skills do we want our schools to teach? In a crowded curriculum, with many objectives, we need to make choices. What skills do we value and which are we going drop in order to make room for new skills?

Overall, I don’t think we have room in the language curriculum for teaching cursive. Any potential benefits of teaching cursive are outweighed by the damage teaching cursive does to young students, especially boys. Maybe the best place for teaching cursive is as a visual arts skill, but it’s no longer a necessary skill for communication.

I’d love to hear your experiences or comments on cursive.