Monday, February 25, 2013

Should N.C. require cursive in schools?

So I'm a hypocrite about cursive handwriting. In our house, we require our sons - one in elementary school and one in middle school - to practice it weekly on homework assignments. We think it's good to know - that despite the predominance of communication by texts, tweets and emails, there's still a social expectation of script in some places. Potential employers still notice a handwritten thank you. More importantly, so do grandmothers.

Do I use cursive? Well, um, no. My handwriting, like many adults, is a hybrid of sorts - printed letters with the occasional flourish of a cursive loop tossed in. It's nothing close to what Mrs. Mackey taught me in 3rd grade, but it gets the job done, at least for the few notes I still write by hand.

Now, some N.C. lawmakers are trying to make cursive handwriting a required part of the curriculum in state elementary schools. Sponsors of the "Back to Basics" bill say it teaches children discipline, makes them more well-rounded and, according to Rep. Chris Malone of Wake County, "lends to our humanity."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spokeswoman Stacy Sneed says the district teaches all students cursive starting in second grade. But in our sons' classrooms, busy with many other subjects, that "teaching" seems to have started and ended then. Each learned to write his name and the letters of the alphabet, but there's been no requirement to use cursive since. If not for their oppressive parents, they would have forgotten the skill by now. 

Is it worth it? Educators say that cursive isn't just about writing, but reading. Children benefit from knowing how to read script in school (think Declaration of Independence) and will benefit later when they have to decipher a doctor's or coworker's note. As for the writing skill, there might be some advantages even beyond the employer-to-be or happy grandma. About 15 percent of the College Board's SAT test takers submit their essay answers in cursive, and those essays also happen to score higher. Is that because those students tend to be from higher-scoring private schools, where cursive is still taught, or is there a judging bias toward nicely handwritten essays? No answers there, but there's no question that, rightly or wrongly, elegant handwriting signals sophistication to people in a position to judge.

The question, for lawmakers and parents, is whether that's enough to require the skill from our elementary students. Given the inescapable march of keyboarded communication, it seems that cursive handwriting has transitioned from critical to complementary. If lawmakers are going to start micromanaging what our students must learn, let's require something really useful like, say, Spanish.

Photo: Teacher Cindy Kusilek works with her third-grade class at Franklin Academy Charter School in Wake Forest. Students there work 20 to 30 minutes a day on cursive handwriting. Photo by Robert Willett, News & Observer.

- Peter St. Onge



Wiley Coyote said...

Not only should they learn cursive, they should learn the 26 letters of the alphabet, manners, respect and multiplication tables to 10.....

Yamo said...

As a middle school social studies and language arts teacher, I find it difficult to read many students' writing samples in their current print. Why should we require cursive writing? Is it really that important? I'm sure we can find some time to generate bills in the State Legislature that actually matter, instead of wasting education's time with this garbage. How about a bill or two requiring parental involvement, raising teacher pay, and/or another worthy cause?

why? said...

A decision such as "teaching cursive" should be left up to the local school boards and not dictated by a time consuming bill such as this in the NC Legislature. They(legislature)will waste more money and time debating this bill. They need to stop meddling in issues they have no business in.

Susan Brewer said...

While I don't believe it's a "critical skill," I have been told before that a cursive signature is the "legal signature."

May or may not be correct, but I do know that the SAT requires students to write and then sign "as [they] would a legal document" a statement about the originality of their work and as a corroboration that they are who they say they are. The statement can be used in case of a question about cheating.

Students have a lot of trouble and take a LOT of time to write that statement because no one really teaches cursive anymore.

Interesting question.

Wiley Coyote said...

...censorship at its best.

The Observer Editorial Board said...


Take the personal attack out, and you're fine. Your first comment is still up there.

Pamela Grundy said...

I'm with you on this one, Peter. Unlike fundamentals such as manners, respect, the multiplication tables and an understanding of diversity in American history, cursive writing is a nice but far from essential skill. Teachers and schools, not legislators, should make the decision on whether it should be a priority during the limited school day. If cursive isn't taught at school, and parents want their kids to learn it, they can do as you do (and I did) and practice it at home.

Wiley Coyote said...

Since the taxpayer - I/we, is paying the salary of the teacher who feels a bill to teach cursive is "garbage" and they also want a bill to raise their salary instead of teaching cursive, I - the taxpayer, feel a bill that will allow firing teachers much easier should also be pushed through.


Shamash said...

Susan Brewer,

There are many forms of legal signatures, not just cursive.

In fact, today, a digital signature is perfectly legal

I've used them on real-estate documents, for example.

You can even pick a "signature" and "initials" from pulldown menus when "signing" a digital document.

It doesn't even have to look ANYTHING like your handwritten signature at all.

KateGladstone said...

It's rather odd that most of the legislators crusading to require cursive are Republicans. Don't they claim to be the party that' for smaller, less intrusive government? How does a hope to minimize government "sit with" a plan for government-mandated cursive?

Beyond odd — in fact, very concerning — is a statement by one of the bill's co-sponsors: Rep. Chris Malone. He has been quoted in the OBSERVER (and elsewhere, as I recall) saying that writing in cursive is part of "our humanity." What happens — legislatively and socially — when nobody questions a politician's assumption that humanity is dependent on writing in a particular way?

KateGladstone said...

Handwriting matters ... But does cursive matter?
Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters join only some letters, not all of them — making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citations appear below.)


/1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub.
1998: on-line at


/2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer.
1998: on-line at

KateGladstone said...

To those who doubt the legality of printed signatures:

N.C. General Statute 25-1-201 (37) says “‘Signed’ includes using any symbol executed or adopted with present intention to adopt or accept a writing.”
Further, N.C. General Statute 12-3 (10) states, for use in statutes: “Provided, that in all cases where a written signature is required by law, the same shall be in a proper handwriting, or in a proper mark.”

Some people have feelings that a printed handwriting or signature can't be "proper" — but the law doesn't say so.

KateGladstone said...

Regarding the SAT's instructions to write one's name as it would appear on a legal document: this is not a demand for cursive. Given that printed signatures can and do appear, lawfully, on legal documents, it is no more than telling the signer to use his/her usual signature — which may, legally, be printed.

The reported higher scores on SAT exams for cursive users are also a matter I've looked into (through inquiries from the staff at the Educational Testing Service: further qwetails, and their response, on request). The SAT/ETS staff informs me that the maximum "difference" found was a small fractions of a single point — on an exam of several thousand points. (It is far less, for instance, than the score-differences between males and females taking the same exam.)

Whether elegant handwriting, today, is a point in anyone's favor: handwritings at the following links show well that handwriting need not be cursive to be elegant:

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