Cursive is now a state-sanctioned staple of the curriculum in Arizona public schools, a change that marks a victory for the art of handwriting in today’s digital society.
The Arizona state Board of Education revised its Common Core education standards on December 19, instituting new standards that expect students to have mastered cursive by the fifth grade (among other requirements). Beginning in 2018, these amendments will be reflected on the state’s standardized test, AzMERIT.
“We now have standards that have been worked on by Arizona teachers, parents, and have been vetted by anti-Common Core experts,” Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas said of the change, according to the AP news story.
Yes, Good Handwriting Is Actually Important
Debates over the necessity of teaching good handwriting and cursive have intensified ever since the creators of the Common Core de-emphasized penmanship (both print and cursive) in their state standards in 2010, stressing typing and computer skills instead. According to the Common Core guidelines, public schools need only require basic print handwriting lessons through first grade, and needn’t require cursive lessons at all.
The predominant view today, as Anne Trubak has suggested in a New York Times op-ed, is that “handwriting just doesn’t matter anymore.” After all, when students can type nearly everything and even sign official documents with digital signatures, why should they bother to practice handwriting or cultivate their own distinct cursive hand?
Despite these arguments, some continue to cling to their quill pens and ink, insisting that good handwriting directly aids children’s educational development. Arizona is the latest of several states—including Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia—to resist a few Common Core requirements and make cursive lessons mandatory in their public schools. Education leaders in these states argue for the practical benefits of cursive, pointing out that it improves hand-eye coordination and helps students retain information.
How Handwriting Improves Your Brain
Research suggests writing by hand directly improves cognitive development. Handwriting “engages the brain more deeply in creative thinking,” says William Klemm, Ph.D., senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. According to Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, this is because the sequential finger actions required to form letters (as opposed to the single action required to type a letter) activate regions of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information. A study she did in 2009 found that “in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.”
Writing by hand also strengthens students’ memories. Occupational therapist Katya Feder, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa School of Rehabilitation, points out that if you write yourself a list or a note—then lose it—you’re much more likely to remember what you wrote than if you just tried to memorize it.
Young children who are good writers also become better readers, according to recent studies published by Karin Harman James of Indiana University. Her research demonstrated that “printing practice improved letter recognition, which is the No. 1 predictor of reading ability at age 5.”
Cursive Is Even More Important Than Printing
Furthermore, it’s cursive—even more than printing—that specifically improves brain development. Occupational Therapist Suzanne Baruch Asherson says that “cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.”
Practical reasons for encouraging handwriting abound. Yet, even these arguments succumb, in a way, to the pragmatic mindset of handwriting’s Common Core-toting opponents. Like Common Core supporters, interested in merely the most “useful” 21st-century skills, most defenders of handwriting argue for it merely as a means to other things—for its utility in improving cognition or reading skills.
But Handwriting Isn’t Just a Means to An End
But assessing the art of handwriting merely in terms of its usefulness is like learning German, French, or Latin merely because such studies will improve your own English grammar, give you a better understanding of the roots of English words, or increase your English vocabulary. Handwriting—like learning a language—is not merely a means to an end, but a good in and of itself.
Creating beautiful letters by hand isn’t just functional; it’s an expression of humans’ unique nature as rational animals. Man, after all, is not merely a machine with an automatic signature, or an assortment of parts that must be trained to function with the proper critical thinking skills. Rather, man is a creature with an extraordinary capacity for both language and beauty—abilities reflected in the art of handwriting.
As a child, I spent hours with my father at the kitchen table, dotting i’s and crossing t’s. His watchful eyes never permitted me to make an “o” taller than an “l,” to round the top of a capital “A,” or to slant my lines downward. Words were valuable, he insisted. They deserved to be written with care. My cursive signature, he added, was uniquely mine—a reflection of my personhood—and I needed to be sure that individual mark was something to be proud of.
Handwriting Helps Unlock Personality and Potential
Ultimately, we should cultivate good handwriting and teach children to develop their signature “hand” because it reflects their very nature as a person—a being capable (unlike animals or machines) of communicating with the personality of an individual. In an age when the gap in difference between man and machine seems to be narrowing, the distinctive character of each person’s cursive is expresses his or her uniqueness as a human being. Perhaps practicing good penmanship—even in a digital world where such a skill increasingly seems useless—is one small way to resist modernity’s attack on the nature of the human person.
So kudos to Arizona for standing up in defense of cursive against the Common Core standards, for it’s a decision that may reap benefits beyond the short-term gains of better motor functions or memory skills. Let’s hope other states follow suit.