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Cursive: The Lost Tool of Learning

In 1947, author Dorothy Sayers read her paper “The Lost Tools of Learning”[1] at Oxford University. In her address, she outlined the problems within contemporary Western education, and she advocated that we “turn back the wheel of progress” to return to the primary objective of education, which she proposed should be using subject matter to teach students how to think, not simply teach them subjects. We still need to turn back our educational dial regarding cursive handwriting for this most valuable lost tool of learning can be a foundational steppingstone for a child’s thinking.

The Common Core State Standards initiative (CCSS) which infiltrated our country’s educational system in 2009 “dropped” cursive handwriting from its scope and sequence. That is, it did not explicitly state that “cursive shall be taught and adequately practiced.” So, education officials far and wide whose state adopted the CCSS, no doubt those officials far removed from the classroom and sitting in the decision-making corner offices of administration buildings, dropped learning cursive in their districts. Since our entire primary, elementary, and high school educational focus has shifted from teaching skills to passing state-mandated tests, classroom teachers needed the extra time for test prep instruction anyway, and (I’m only guessing here) didn’t push back. Everything is moving to computers anyway, so why waste time teaching cursive when it’s an antiquated and laborious writing technique. Right?

No. It’s not right! By dropping cursive instruction, we have dropped an important skill that helps develop significant and much needed pathways in a child’s brain. In fact, new research is suggesting that not only are children missing out on neurological benefits when learning cursive, but not teaching cursive in schools short-changes their brain’s full potential to learn and remember. Research conducted on 12-year-olds using EEGs showed that the act of cursive writing activates certain parts of the brain, and the subsequent neural firing is “thought to be critical for the formation of long-term memories in the hippocampus.”[2] In other words, when students write information using cursive, they are forming memories that help them understand and remember the information better. Cursive instruction is also considered one of the helpful dysgraphia interventions in the classroom. Researchers have found the brain is also activated when students use a keyboard to take notes, and they are likely to take more notes, typing exactly what the speaker says. That sounds like really good learning. Right?

No. It’s not right! When students take notes by writing cursive, researchers found that they reconfigure the information in their thought processes and write the essential points in their own words. Not only does this type of thinking help students synthesize and internalize the information, but the mere act of cursive movement is opening those neural pathways to facilitate memory to retain the information. Three other studies found that students who took notes by cursive handwriting performed better on “conceptual questions” than those who took notes on laptops.

So, the entire exercise of cursive handwriting can develop students who can better prepare themselves for a high-stakes exam by learning the content that will be tested as opposed to practicing tricks for choosing a correct answer in an online test. When students understand the material, the teacher will only need to briefly instruct the class in test-taking strategies before the big test. (Read the question, understand what is being asked, read ALL the answer choices, select the correct answer, find evidence in the passage that supports your answer. Boom! Success!)

Have States Really Dropped Cursive Instruction?

Although Common Core dropped the skill, states did not. As of 2020, 45 states have some kind of cursive instruction requirement; however, states can give individual districts the authority to decide whether to include it in their curriculum. Only five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) do not have specific requirements regarding cursive instruction. But having the requirement and fulfilling the requirement are two different things. In Texas, the TEKS specifically address cursive beginning in second grade and ending in fifth grade. The scope of the standards state “The student is expected to develop handwriting by accurately forming all cursive letters using appropriate strokes when connecting letters (Grade 2), write complete words, thoughts, and answers legibly in cursive leaving appropriate spaces between words (Grade 3), write legibly in cursive to complete assignments (Grade 4), and write legibly in cursive (Grade 5). After Grade 5, no handwriting is addressed. So cursive is still required. Good. Why am I reading this article? There’s not a problem. Right?

No. It’s not right! Because cursive handwriting is “not on the test” (that is a state-mandated standardized test), it’s not being taught or required. Speaking for two Independent School Districts in the North Dallas area of Texas, I can say from personal observation that cursive worksheets are distributed for students to trace and practice in grades 2, 3, and 4, but no explicit instruction is given, and accountability is not enforced. My grandson is in fifth grade in Texas; he’s never been required to complete an assignment in cursive and neither have his classmates. Students who were in grades 2-5 during the pandemic of 2020-2022 barely received sufficient instruction in core subjects as districts tried to navigate how to deliver effective online instruction. Understandably, cursive handwriting was far from anyone’s mind or hand. As a result, my grandson and many of his classmates cannot write or read cursive. Some can barely print. Students who are unable to read cursive will have difficulty reading old handwriting in primary documents as their education progresses.

What’s to Be Done Now?

It may be too much to expect teachers to remediate students who are deficient in cursive skills, especially if they are in a district, like mine, which is doing everything online. Parents could insist that their state’s standards regarding cursive handwriting be addressed properly in their school, but they would probably have better results remediating the problem themselves at home.

Some very good handwriting programs which parents could use at home are Handwriting Without Tears by Learning Without Tears® and Abeka® Cursive. Both products are available on Amazon. Handwriting Without Tears cursive uses a straight, up-and-down approach to letter formation, whereas Abeka Cursive uses the traditional slanted cursive. Many YouTube videos for learning cursive are available as well. However, these workbooks still focus on tracing and not explicit instruction.

Sam Blumenfeld[3], an education writer and advocate of systematic, explicit phonics instruction, suggests teaching cursive before print. I’m not sure I agree, but being a certified Spalding instructor myself, I do know that systematic, explicit phonics instruction is essential to learning to read. So, if I had a younger student at home who could identify letters of the alphabet on letter cards and an older one needing cursive instruction, I would certainly teach cursive to both students and enforce phonics instruction at the same time. My newest product, Learning Cursive with Phonics, facilitates this instruction for any parent, homeschool classroom, or regular classroom teacher.

A Good Solution

Learning Cursive with Phonics is a phonics-based cursive instruction program I have designed to complement Spalding’s The Writing Road to Reading program. An easy-to-follow Teacher’s Guide, student worksheets, and videos facilitate instruction for teachers who are using the Spalding method. However, for teachers who simply need a way to provide cursive instruction without compromising valuable class time, my video instruction is ideal. The videos can be presented to the whole class, small groups, or viewed individually on an electronic device during independent study. Students practice forming cursive letters by writing on the student worksheets, which can be downloaded, printed, and stapled into a convenient workbook. A print-on-demand workbook is available for order on Amazon. While learning to form the letters, students are also learning (or relearning) phonics for reading fluency and spelling. At the end of 18 short video sessions, students will know how to form the alphabet in upper- and lowercase cursive, but more importantly, they will know how to connect the letters and think about spelling. With dictation, students think how to spell words according to spelling rules they learn throughout the sessions. Then, they analyze and mark the words, thinking about the rules that govern spelling English words. Both the Teacher’s Guide and the student worksheets have Spalding’s 29 rules for spelling and grammar listed for easy reference. So that students can have plenty of opportunity to practice using cursive in meaningful ways, additional handwriting pages with ten writing prompts are provided.

Strategies for Practicing Cursive Handwriting

As students master cursive, they need meaningful practice beyond a workbook. My Writing Journal for Grades 3-5, with writing prompts to stimulate a writer’s imagination, is a good tool for this practice. The journal not only provides space for handwriting practice but gives the young writer opportunity to communicate personal thoughts and ideas. Beyond schoolwork or journaling, parents can encourage their children to more comprehensive uses of cursive at home.

Here are a few ways to stimulate interest in cursive writing.

  • Have your child listen to a YouTube video on a topic of interest and take notes using cursive. Then ask your child to tell the family about the topic over dinner.

  • Post a topic (written in cursive) for your child’s daily journaling.

  • Dictate a grocery list to your child and plan a grocery shopping trip where your child reads the list to you.

  • Have your child interview a grandparent or older relative and record their responses in cursive.

  • Encourage your child to write a thank-you note in cursive to a friend, teacher, relative, or neighbor for a kindness they have done.

The Future of Cursive

If the primary objective of education is to teach students to think so they can read and learn about any subject, then teaching cursive with systematic and explicit phonics instruction is a good beginning. Learning cursive will help with brain development, and coupled with phonics instruction, will enhance analytical thinking, reading fluency, and so much more.

What I can think, I can say; what I can say, I can write; what I can write, I can read; what I can read, I can understand.



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