Thanks to a new bill proposed by New Jersey Democratic Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, students in the state may soon be required to learn, read, and write cursive by the end of third grade. Cursive instruction became a rarity in public elementary classrooms after the Common Core dropped its requirement in 2010. However, many states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Texas, have since made efforts to reintroduce cursive requirements.
Proponents of the bill, including the Scholastic Corporation, argue that learning cursive helps children become better spellers and stronger readers and writers. But others argue that as the world has evolved, the need for cursive writing has diminished and students would be better off learning technical skills like coding.
The Inquirer reached out to a teacher and a grammarian to debate: Should schools be required to teach cursive handwriting?
Sure, students should learn how to write in cursive. They should also learn Latin, philosophy, baking, astrobiology, oceanography, and the complete Beatles catalog.
But with only 180 or so school days in a year, we have to pick and choose. And cursive, unfortunately, doesn’t make the cut.
Last week, a New Jersey assemblywoman introduced a bill that would mandate Garden State students learn cursive by the end of third grade. In 2015, a similar resolution sailed through Philadelphia’s City Council with 14 cosponsors, calling on the School District to require the same.
For many readers, the mere mention of cursive instruction will conjure up terrifying memories of iron-fisted instructors rapping their adolescent fingers because their overcurves didn’t have sufficient bounce.
Too often, cursive writing proponents advocate for the style because it’s what they were taught to do, and it’s what they were taught was the hallmark of modern civilization. Indeed, the Philadelphia resolution began with such a statement: “It is important for students to learn to engage in cursive writing in order to be deemed intelligent and functional individuals in society.” Unfortunately, “it’s what I was taught” and “it’s proper” have led to some of the worst reasoning in language.
Take, for example, the rule that one should not split infinitives: “To boldly go where no one has gone before” is incorrect, according to that rule. Its proponents advocate that “to go boldly” is better. You probably learned not to split infinitives in school. You might have even learned why: because Latin infinitives are one word, literally incapable of being split. And if you can’t do it in Latin, you shouldn’t do it in English.
Which is colossally stupid reasoning.
Sometimes writing in cursive has benefits. Some research has shown that students with reading and writing disorders can improve their performance because cursive forces them to think of each word as a complete unit. But this doesn’t mean that mandating cursive for all students is a reasonable solution, just as we don’t implement an English-as-a-second-language curriculum for native English speakers just because it benefits their nonnative peers.
Others will argue that writing in cursive is faster because the pen never leaves the paper. But research doesn’t back up this claim, and with good reason: Think about letters like F or L or G, both uppercase and lowercase. The cursive versions require your pen to travel much farther, even if in lowercase it is (imperceptibly) lifting off the page to reach the next letter. Quite simply, each writer is too different for a blanket rule to benefit all.
And when you add to the school curriculum, you have to take something away. Remember how in history class, you made it up through World War II, and then had to cover the rest of the 20th century in two days because summer had arrived? Your teacher could have made time for the Vietnam War and the fall of the USSR and 9/11 (sorry, folks: that’s before the class of 2020 was born), but then they would have had to skimp on something else.
Writing in your pretty, old-fashioned cursive is nice, but better that they use that time to become better readers and writers, period, no matter the script.
Jeffrey Barg writes The Inquirer’s biweekly Angry Grammarian column. His handwriting is atrocious. email@example.com
The question is not about whether or not cursive is useful. That much is settled. Studies have proven that learning cursive on top of shorthand increases literacy skills.
Despite this, many schools nationwide have ended the practice of teaching cursive handwriting to students. But in New Jersey, that may soon change. Last week, a New Jersey lawmaker introduced a bill that would require students to learn cursive writing by the end of third grade.
There’s a really tired argument that goes something like this: Do kids need to learn cursive in a shifting world?
Of course they do. After all, we do want them to be able to understand primary historical documents written in script and sign their name on legal documents. Cursory thought makes that clear. But it’s an argument that is almost always deployed to cover up another, far more insidious notion.
One of the most duplicitous and pervasive ideas in education is that some schools — and therefore, some kids — should just get used to having less until their problems are fixed. Arguments like these come to mind: “How can we focus on having a great arts program if the roof is falling in?” Or, “How can we field a football team when we can’t keep our kids meeting average English scores?”
The claim is simple and constant: Kids in lower-performing schools don’t deserve anything extra until everything is perfect. And what’s more: those schools need to cut back on everything extra until they meet the standards.
When our leaders think like this, programs and educational mores that are not strictly in the interest of standardized test success get stripped out. French. Field hockey. Cursive writing.
But that’s not fair to the kids who attend those schools.
Think of it this way. Most kids who attend a wealthy private school are probably not going to have to worry about learning cursive, just like most Ivy legacy students aren’t ever going to have to worry about not eating lunch because of outstanding debt. But at poorer schools, those worries are real.
The debate is not about whether cursive writing is a thing that should be taught. That’s obvious. Of course schools should teach it.
It’s about whether it should be taught to all children, including the students who those in control of education pursestrings treat as unworthy of a commitment of resources.
Removing cursive from the program isn’t a matter of practicality or urgency. Cursive didn’t become obsolete over the course of a decade or so, nor did it become an anachronism. To say that cursive shouldn’t be taught because it doesn’t have immediate relevance is like saying that kids shouldn’t have to learn the meaning of the word “shall” because you don’t need to know it to have a successful Call of Duty stream.
Cursive training has been disappearing — but only for kids that our leaders have tacitly agreed should get used to having less. New Jersey’s proposal is a good one. For the kids and for everyone.