Handwriting makes a comeback in US schools

That inking feeling: Four handwriting styles in chronological order (clockwise from top-left).

Should handwriting be taught in schools? More American schools are putting cursive back on the curriculum. But for some, computers have made handwriting lessons a waste of time.

This article was typed, as are most things nowadays. The printing press, the typewriter, the computer, the smartphone: with each invention, people have proclaimed the death of handwriting.

But evidence points to the contrary. Lawmakers in Illinois have recently passed a law requiring schools to teach handwriting. State Senator Kimberley Lightford claimed that cursive “is a skill children will need throughout their lives”. Illinois is the latest of 15 states to introduce cursive lessons to schools, which will be taught to all pupils by fifth grade.

Handwriting lessons became common in American schools in the late 19th century. They lost some importance with the rise of typewriters — as early as 1955, The Saturday Evening Post was calling the USA “a nation of scrawlers”. By the 1980s, children were getting little formal training (unlike their peers in Europe, who still get schooled in loops and curlicues).

The introduction of the Common Core standards in 2010 dealt another blow to handwriting. While requiring “keyboarding skills”, they do not even mention cursive. However, states are not obliged to follow the standards, and have some freedom to decide their curriculums. Hence 15 have decided to go their own way.

Why did they? In recent years, a number of studies have indicated the benefits of good penmanship. Writing in cursive has been linked to improved spelling, higher SAT scores and better retention of information.

The reasons for this remain pretty unclear, and sceptics say that the studies are not conclusive. That has not stopped experts from suggesting hypotheses. Many argue that cursive allows you to write faster — and thus more — than print writing. Some speculate that by joining up letters, cursive helps you memorise words in their entirety.

Good handwriting has other, more obvious advantages. It helps you to create a distinctive signature. It enables you to read documents written by hand. And then there is the sheer beauty of cursive — which may be why some schools in Ohio are teaching it in art class.

Write or wrong?

Every school in the country should bring back proper cursive lessons, say some. As mentioned above, it will help you in your education, and in life generally. Just as importantly, handwriting is an art form that has been refined over millennia. It would be tragic if we lost it through pure laziness.

Not true, reply others. Those studies are vague — there is no strong evidence for all these benefits. If anything, an emphasis on cursive can demoralise pupils who are clever but naturally bad at handwriting. There is only so much time in a school day. Instead of getting nostalgic, teachers should focus on modern skills like coding.

You Decide

  1. How much classroom time per week (if any) should be spent on handwriting?
  2. Which skills that are currently not taught at school should be?

Activities

  1. Come up with a signature, making sure that it is very distinctive.
  2. Get your teacher to read this story out loud. As they do so, take notes by hand, then write a summary of the story without looking at it. How much were you able to note down? How do you feel about the experience?

Some People Say...

“You can’t write poetry on a computer.”

Quentin Tarantino

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Writing has existed for five millennia; for almost all that period, all writing was done by hand. The craft of handwriting blossomed in medieval monasteries, where monks copied beautiful editions of sacred texts. In the USA, historical documents like the Constitution were written out by professional penmen. It is only in the 19th century, with the creation of Spencerian cursive, that fine handwriting became a widespread skill.
What do we not know?
Where cursive’s “comeback” will go. Some argue that keyboards will spark a broad backlash, encouraging people to return to the pen — or even that technology will help this comeback in the form of handwriting apps like abc PocketPhonics. Others believe that the practical advantages of typing will render fine handwriting obsolete.

Word Watch

15 states
Other states include Florida, Texas and Alabama.
Little formal training
According to a 2012 report, an estimated 25% to 33% of elementary school students are struggling to achieve proficiency in handwriting.
Curlicues
The official word for the pretty little curls and twists you see in really sophisticated writing.
Common Core
A set of national learning guidelines created in order to help standardise education across states and improve its overall quality. Despite controversy, they have been adopted by 42 states and the District of Columbia.
Higher SAT scores
According to 2007 data, the 15% of students who completed the writing section of the SATs in cursive did a little better than those who did so in another kind of handwriting.
Written by hand
In the trial of George Zimmerman, the policeman who shot Trayvon Martin dead in 2012, a witness for the prosecution claimed to have written a letter that was important to the case. But when presented with the letter, she was forced to admit that this was not true: she could not read its cursive script.