Does learning cursive still hold value in the modern world? The number of elementary schools in the country still teaching it has been steadily declining, and as of 2008, only 15% of students nationwide wrote their SAT essays in cursive. The percentage in Corvallis might be a bit higher: we’re still teaching it here and there’s no plan for that to change.
Studies have shown that cursive improves children’s motor skills and cognition, making them faster learners in other subjects. It teaches the brain “functional specialization,” which is essential to the brain’s efficiency. Brain imaging has even shown that when children do cursive, their brain activates many more regions than when they write in print. The theory is that when the brain does this, especially in children, it is learning traits and skills that will stay with the child for life.
Supporters also contend that without cursive, students may have trouble actually reading. Everybody over the age of 16 in this country already learned their curls and connections (as well as that cryptic “z”), and many use it to scribble out notes or give hand writing a little flare. Without it, some children would not be able to read their own parents’ note on the fridge to go get more milk, or Grandma’s letters from her teen years during World War II. Additionally, the bulk of handwritten historical documents of any importance are in cursive as well. For instance, The Constitution. Without having properly studied the skill, reading these documents might prove frustrating or impossible.
Perhaps this explains why our district still teaches cursive to students in third grade, even though the curriculum no longer requires it.
In 2010, Oregon Public Schools adopted the Common Core Standards sweeping the land. Common Core was created in 2009 to solve the problem of varying levels of preparedness in graduating high school students from state to state. The problem, as it was seen, was that students in certain states were graduating markedly less prepared for college than the students of other states. In an effort to combat this, a national standard of items that students should have learned by the time they finish high school was created.
The standards are not all-encompassing; they don’t tell a teacher what they can’t teach, just the minimum things they should. Cursive didn’t make the list. So as of 2014 to 2015, when full implementation of the standards is complete in Oregon, none of the schools will be required to teach cursive.
There’s a lot of pressure on this topic, oddly. And it can even get political.
Since they are federal standards, it makes for a thorny issue with those against top-down government solutions—for instance, the Tea Party. And cursive was seized upon by many as one of the problems of Common Core, making strange bedfellows of libertarians, Christian conservatives, and hip liberal moms on the cutting edge of parenting science. They all tend to agree that cursive is still vital.
Detractors aren’t exactly sold. Cursive in the form we more or less now know it was created in the 1600s. Back then it was wildly useful. Now, not so much. With this trend continuing, perhaps a line needs to be drawn somewhere.
“It’s not what it was 20 years ago,” said Kevin Bogatin, assistant superintendent for the Corvallis School District, “because keyboarding is now more the norm for them.”
Cursive often can makes things harder to read, unless executed by a sure and steady hand. As it is traditionally used for speed over beauty, cursive handwriting can be often terrible. And with many schools already not teaching it anymore, this will only get worse.
It also takes a great deal of time for students to learn. This time is valuable, and many see it as a lost opportunity for students to be learning something they’ll actually probably need to know to get ahead in the future — like speaking Mandarin.
In the 1600s, learning and mastering a quick and legible—not to mention space-saving—method of writing was crucial for anyone attempting to get an education. Nowadays students are preparing for lives and careers that revolve almost entirely around a computer screen.
It doesn’t hold for all things “old fashioned,” that we cast them off in favor of hard drives and keyboards. In fact, a novel suggestion might be to replace cursive with something even more “useless” and old: the abacus.
The ancient arithmetic device has been around for almost 6000 years, and it has all the same usefulness for brain development as cursive. And again, Mandarin: The abacus is still the tool of choice to train Chinese students in arithmetic, an area where they are far surpassing their counterparts in American schools.
Lastly, some would point out that there is an actual physical danger to cursive in addition to intangible losses. According to an oft-quoted 2006 study by the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine, roughly 7,000 people at the time died each year from sloppy handwriting. Not from their poor penmanship, mind you, but from their doctors’. Unreadable doctor scrawl leads to prescription mix-ups and other assorted disasters every day.
Granted, there is also data that supports them screwing it up with a keyboard as well, which is now the norm. And one could argue that the only way to stop this is to ramp up cursive teaching, not slow it down.
No matter which side of the fence you sit on this issue, for Corvallis, it’s not going anywhere. For now.
“We still expect kids to know it,” said Bogatin, who has children of his own learning cursive in Corvallis schools. “I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”
By Ygal Kaufman