Is Cursive Dead?

Not on your life.

Cursive is nearly as old as writing itself

Cursive writing is in decline, says the New York Times. Should we panic?

In a much-emailed article published Wednesday, Katie Zezima chronicled the hand-wringing of school administrators over whether to teach cursive writing. “Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?” asks one elementary school principal. But various experts warn Zezima that children who are deprived of cursive will fail to develop fine motor skills and lose a means of creative expression. They may be unable to read historical documents like the Constitution, and their clunky, longhand signatures could be more vulnerable to forgery.

Before we start pulling our hair out over this, let’s all pause for a moment, dip our quills in the inkwell, and consider the history. Every few years someone publishes a story predicting—and lamenting—the demise of cursive writing, and every year that story completely misses the point. The issue isn’t whether cursive writing will survive. It’s whether we’ll be using one kind of cursive writing or a billion kinds.

Educators couldn’t kill off the art of cursive writing even if they wanted to. How do I know? Because humans have an innate urge to increase the efficiency of their communications. The day after some caveman figured out how to paint a bison, his smart-aleck neighbor figured out a way to do it faster. Writing started with drawings of objects, then transitioned to symbols to represent syllables. Eventually, the modern alphabet developed, relying on characters to stand in for individual consonant and vowel sounds. * Cursive, which is nearly as old as writing itself, is just another innovation.

Consider Egyptian hieroglyphics, the hand of pharaohs and ancient diplomacy. It was a timeless and gorgeous script, but as a practical matter it was a total mess. The system was so time-consuming that it was reserved for inscriptions on metal and stone. When Egyptians needed to communicate with each other on papyrus, they used the cursive hieratic script. Just like modern cursive, hieratic script was a system of joined letters that allowed the scribe’s hand to flow freely. A later form of Egyptian cursive called demotic script appears on the Rosetta stone.

Cursive has existed through all times and around the world. Ancient Greeks had cursive. The doomed Pompeiians graffitied their walls in cursive Latin in the last moments before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. There’s a cursive Japanese script and cursive Hebrew.

Virtually every civilization that managed to develop a system of writing eventually formulated a second, quickie version. The first would be for formal business, the second for efficient, casual communication. It seems that humans have an irresistible urge to connect their letters.

Sure, it’s possible that smartphone keyboards outfitted with Swype or T9 will take on this role as a secondary, informal mode of communication. But there’s very little indication that handwriting is on its way out, or that the majority of the U.S. population can text faster than they can write. (In addition, most schoolchildren still take their exams longhand.)

As long as writing is going to stick around, we have a responsibility to teach it. In fact, cursive writing is a bit like sex: Youngsters are going to do it whether we like it or not. We just need to figure out whether we’re going to teach them the right way to go about it, or let them stumble their way through on their own.

According to Steven Roger Fischer, a script expert and author of A History of Writing, children who are never taught to write cursive develop their own slapdash versions—what he calls a “personal cursive.” These pidgin modes are faster than printing, but can be very difficult for others to read.

A kid who has his own illegible handwriting may face some obstacles later on in his educational career. Steve Graham, who studies education and literacy at Vanderbilt University and was among the experts cited in the Times piece, notes that kids with sloppy handwriting have been shown to score lower on tests, regardless of the content of their ideas. Bias against poor penmanship can push a score by two standard deviations.”People form opinions about the quality of ideas based on the handwriting,” he says.

So unless we can do away with handwriting altogether and all at once, it’s blatantly unfair not to teach every student proper cursive. We needn’t worry over messy signatures, or a loss of fine motor skills or artistic expression. None of that really matters. The problem is that kids will write in cursive whether we’re teaching it or not. And they ought to be able to do it as effectively as possible.

It’s understandable that school principles would think about cutting penmanship class. After all, while our children waste their time perfecting that preposterous lower-case z, Indian and Chinese children are tinkering with their space elevators and hydrogen cars for the science fair. Maybe we don’t have time to teach children to type in addition to writing in both print and cursive.

Fischer offers the right solution: Let’s stop teaching children to write in printed script. Forcing children to write in such a formal, inefficient style wastes everyone’s time. Worse, it encourages them to trade off legibility by developing their own haphazard cursive. There are other options: For a 2009 column, Slate’s “Human Guinea Pig” joined her daughter in learning the Barchowsky method, a hybrid style of writing that’s quick to use and easy to pick up.

“When we don’t teach penmanship, the result is an ugly, unaesthetic, and illegible script,” says Fischer. “Ugliness is unimportant. Aesthetics are unimportant to many people. But illegibility defeats the purpose of writing. There must be a standard.”

Correction, May 1, 2011: This article originally noted that individual characters came to stand in for letters. To be more precise, individual characters came to stand in for the sounds with which modern speakers identify letters. (Return to the corrected sentence.)