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Will Handwriting Be Lost Forever as We Write Less in Cursive?

cursive writing
Ancient Greek cursive writing on a papyrus from 545 AD. British Museum. Credit: Paul Halsall, Byzantine Paleography/Public Domain

Cursive handwriting — the flowing, graceful script that was the hallmark of the written word for millennia, until the advent of the printing press — is clearly threatened now around the globe.

With computers and screens of all kinds now ubiquitous all over the world — even in schools — many fear that our ability to write in cursive is being lost forever. Perhaps never before in history has such a critical skill been lost so quickly to the point where one wonders if the younger generations will even be able to read the letters exchanged by their grandparents.

This is no trifling matter. Yes, reading cursive is a bit wonky since it does vary from individual to individual, but the loss of teaching — and understanding — the way in which people wrote for millennia constitutes a disturbing break with the past.

Graceful, elegant cursive handwriting a hallmark of Western history

Admittedly, the days when teachers taught cursive during an entire school period, admonishing their pupils to use their entire forearms — not just their hands — to write, is gone for the most part.

And with it, the graceful, elegant lettering that is associated with it.

But should they have completely given up the concept of teaching correct handwriting at all as part of all their other subjects?

A British author recently warned that cursive could “go the way of Latin and Greek” to the point that it could be “lost within a generation,” after an exams board announced that it was beginning trials of completely digital exams at a number of schools in the UK.

Novelist Colm Toibin — who writes his works in longhand — told the BBC in an interview “If you began to say everything would be much more efficient on a laptop, (handwriting) would go eventually, it would within a generation, almost disappear,” adding: “It goes the way of Latin and Greek.”

Digitization at all costs?

Naturally, there are many advantages to the use of keyboards, not the least of which is that using computers rather than writing on paper is greener, saving reams of paper and other resources.

But at which cost does this come? Will young people today even be able to read the letters and other documents written by their own grandparents? In 2010, schools across the US adopted “Common Core” standards, which did not require that cursive be taught in public elementary schools.

Some states, including New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and Illinois, are pushing back, writing legislation that would mandate the teaching of cursive on the state level. New Jersey Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, a Democrat, introduced such legislation in 2019 after noting the fact that her son was not being taught penmanship at all after the switchover to Common Core.

Kathleen Wright, who worked for the Zaner-Bloser company, which publishes cursive workbooks and sponsors a national cursive handwriting competition, tells the New York Times that a total of 24 states now require some form of cursive instruction.

“They’re all rediscovering it”

“After they got rid of handwriting, now they’re all rediscovering it,” states Virginia Berninger, a retired professor at the University of Washington professor who researched how children learn. It turns out that the formation of letters in the human brain does indeed impact the learning process. “People mistakenly assumed because we had computers, we didn’t need handwriting. We need both,” Berlinger says.

Local administrators and teachers in any state, may still make the decision to teach cursive handwriting on their own.

They did just that at a small school in Maine, and some teachers there continue to buck the trend toward total digital and electronic learning and communication. Their mission has resulted in their students’ winning a number of penmanship awards at the national level, keeping the ancient tradition alive.

Cursive is taught even in the first grade (when students are usually six years old) at Woodland Consolidated School, in rural Washington County, Maine. Winning its most recent awards in May of 2021, the small school has a proud history of taking home the national penmanship awards.

Two Woodland students won awards in Spring 2021 in the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest, which is open to students in kindergarten through the eighth grade in the US.

Third grader Allison Grace St. Peter won the national award for her age group, while seventh grader Christian Vargas won the cursive Nicholas Maxim Award for special-needs children. With their awards, the small Woodland school, which has fewer than 200 students, became the first school to boast both a grand national champion and a Maxim winner.

“Kids take a lot of pride” in cursive writing at Maine school

Carrie St. Peter, Allison’s mother and a teacher at Woodland, told interviewers from the New York Times “it’s something that our school takes a lot of pride in, and the kids take a lot of pride in it, too.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about the campaign to keep cursive writing alive is that one teacher at Woodland simply forbids the use of technology in her classroom.

Alexandra Lord, who has been Christian’s teacher for the past five years, says she instituted the practice as a way to not only give students a much-needed break from screens but to give them an opportunity to practice their handwriting as well.

“Screen time isn’t always the most beneficial activity they can do,” Lord stated, noting “They have to use a pen and paper, or pencil and paper, because I think that I’m trying to stress that we need to be connected to hand-eye coordination and fine-motor coordination.”

Her effort is part of a campaign on the part of the school to keep alive the now-threatened skill of cursive writing. “I feel that our students across our nation are losing the ability to sign their name,” Lord lamented.

“You should be proud of your name”

“I always tell my students: ‘You should be proud of your name. You should be able to write it as beautifully as you can because it represents your spirit, and you, and what you can accomplish.’”

The Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest, in which approximately 80,000 students take part every year, involves the writing of two sentences, one of which must include what the students enjoys about handwriting, while the second is the famous phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This second sentence, which contains every letter of the alphabet, is one that every typist once practiced in school.

The winners are awarded a trophy, a check for $500 check and a $1,000 voucher for their schools, while their teachers get a certificate. St. Peter and Vargas are just the latest in a string of students from the rural Maine school who have won the distinction, with a seventh grader winning it in 2011 and another taking home the prize in 2017.

Taking part in the national cursive writing contest is now a point of pride for teachers at Woodland. “Everybody loves to teach the handwriting course,” St. Peter told the Times, adding “It’s important that they can read historical documents that are in cursive, and they can sign their signature when they’re asked to sign forms.”

Efforts like these are indeed commendable, according to Anne Trubek, the author of the book titled “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting.” Sadly, however, she foresees that cursive handwriting may indeed disappear from human culture.

Cursive handwriting part of our individual identities

“My take is that it’s going away,” Trubek said, adding “I think that there’s nothing wrong with learning cursive and doing it well. I don’t think it’s going to be much of a practical application.”

She predicts that there will always be those who practice the vanishing skill, so the graceful writing will still be extant “the way there are still typewriters.”

However, the future is ominous for the teaching of cursive as part of the normal curriculum for most schools.

“I think I’m just like most Americans where cursive is a much, much smaller part of their lives than it was 20 years ago — for those who are old enough to remember that — and it’s continuing, with each passing day, to become a smaller part of their daily lives,” Trubek admits.

In his interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program recently, novelist Toibin said our turn toward complete digitization in writing is lamentable, noting that the loss of cursive even impacts our acknowledgement of personal identity. As an example of this, he says “You would know when a letter came from someone, oh that’s from Auntie so-and-so, that’s her handwriting.”

Will the inability to write and understand cursive be just another loss of our cultural signposts as we go through life? Perhaps not, if we see the results of a recent poll in Great Britain as to what people think may happen to the future of handwriting.

As part of the British Museum’s 2019 exhibit on writing, it asked visitors how they expected to send a birthday card to a friend or relative in the year 2069. Most people said that they indeed would continue to send a handwritten card, not a digital greeting.

According to these results, there will always be a place for the human touch in our interpersonal communications. And that in itself might keep this endangered skill alive.

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