When Melissa Morgenlander’s daughter Fiona started third grade last year, she was excited about learning what she considered a real “big kid” skill: cursive handwriting. But to Fiona’s disappointment, cursive had been dropped from the curriculum. “She was sad about it, and so was I,” Morgenlander says. “I worry she’ll never be able to read documents like the Constitution. I also wonder what will happen when she has to sign papers without having learned a distinctive signature.”
As our lives keep moving to the digital realm, more schools like Morgenlander’s are quietly leaving cursive behind. Experts weigh in on whether or not to worry.
A sure sign of the times: Cursive is not even mentioned in the Common Core standards. “Children used to learn print in kindergarten and first grade, then transition to cursive in second or third, but now we have a third important skill to fit in—keyboarding,” explains Steven Graham, Ed.D., professor of education at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Schools have to make a decision about where to put in the effort, and if you’re only going to have room for one type of writing, print is going to win.”
While many parents lament the decline of cursive, and a handful of states have even fought to pass legislation to require it, most education experts are calmer about the issue. “Handwriting is an important skill—when a child prints a letter by hand, a section of the brain becomes activated that underlies reading and spelling skills,” says Karin Harman James, Ph.D., associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. However, in her research Dr. James has discovered that the brain activation is the same whether a child writes a letter in print or script. “The two types of writing are also not very different in terms of fine motor skills,” she adds.
Dr. Graham agrees. “Most people would say that print is more legible, while cursive is faster, but when you control for the amount of time spent practicing each form of writing, the differences are pretty minimal. You can write legibly and fluidly in both.”
There is one area where cursive may have an advantage over print, however. “For kids with learning difficulties, cursive writing can be very helpful,” says Emily Levy, Ed.D., a writing tutor and founder of EBL Coaching in New York. “Kids with dyslexia tend to reverse letters, and in print some letters (like b and d) look very similar. In cursive, they are much more distinct from each other.”
Beyond activating the brain, most of the arguments for cursive involve history and sentiment. Still, if you’re a stickler for a scripted sign-off, you should know that a signature does not have to be legible to be official (just look at your doctor’s!), and surprisingly, it doesn’t even have to be in cursive, says Dr. Graham. You can write out your child’s name a few different ways in script and have him develop his own variation, or simply have him write it in print with a few connecting lines, suggests Dr. James.
However, if you want your child to learn this timeless, elegant skill, practice at home. Many workbooks teach the basic cursive letter shapes, but they should only be a jumping-off point, says Dr. James. “We know that the brain doesn’t learn as well when a child is tracing letters, which is what most workbooks do,” she says. “It seems best to learn writing freehand—that’s how children develop the pathways that become important for reading.” Because writing letters in the air or with shaving cream or sand does not require the same fine motor skills as practicing forms with a writing utensil, it may be less valuable than printing practice, Dr. James adds.
Once your child has learned each letter, write out a series of words for him to copy. “I make up lists for my son Ellis with Harry Potter characters and Mets players, which makes it interesting,” says Eileen Mullin, of Rego Park, New York.
Though learning to write freehand with a pencil is preferable, you can supplement with fun apps if you want your child to learn script, suggests Dr. Levy. She recommends Zaner-Bloser Handwriting Cursive, which has cute videos, or Cursive Writing by Horizon Business, which gives detailed directions for each letter. These apps can help kids recognize cursive well enough to read it.
The main thing is that your child learns to write—in print or script—fluidly enough to express herself freely and legibly enough so that teachers can read her writing. And though Dr. Graham predicts that in a few years most schoolwork and standardized tests will be done on the computer, he doesn’t think the mighty pen is going away. “It’s a cheap and efficient way to record information,” he says. “You can take a pen and paper anywhere.”