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There’s no reason for kids to learn cursive, but politicians keep trying to make them

For many students, cursive is already a thing of the past.
For many students, cursive is already a thing of the past.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

State legislatures across the country are springing to the defense of a skill that most adults rarely use: cursive handwriting.

bill in the Washington state legislature would require students in the state to learn cursive. If it passes, Washington would join states as politically diverse as TennesseeNorth CarolinaCalifornia, Georgia, Idaho, and Massachusetts that in the past few years have passed bills requiring schools to teach students to write in cursive.

Even more states have tried to reaffirm cursive's place in the curriculum. The Kansas Board of Education reaffirmed in 2013 that students should learn to write cursive. And similar bills have been proposed in Indiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, and other states.

These defenders of cursive writing say they're spurred into action by the Common Core — new standards for what students should know and be able to do in language arts and math. The Common Core doesn't require students to learn to write cursive.

But the Common Core really just reflects a longstanding trend: cursive handwriting has been on its way out for two generations, long before texting became the preferred way for young people to communicate. The search for a simpler way to teach children to write goes back a century. The slow death of cursive is just the latest version.

The history of cursive in the classroom

In the 1860s, as elementary education became more universal, the most widely used form of handwriting was the Spencerian Script — the loopy, ornate cursive most commonly seen now on formal invitations and college diplomas. Students never learned to write in print; they started writing cursive from the beginning.

Spencerian script

An example of Spencerian Script. (D. L. Musselman)

Spencerian Script was beautiful, but not practical; it took a long time to write. So when a new, much simpler method of cursive was developed in the 1920s — the Palmer Method — it quickly became universal in American classrooms. If you've ever gotten a letter or card from a grandparent, you've probably seen the Palmer Method:

Palmer method

(A. N. Palmer)

Around the time the Palmer Method was introduced, children also started learning to print before they learned cursive writing. That made it easier for the youngest children to write in class, but it started paving the way for the downfall of cursive altogether.

Still, handwriting was considered a major skill worth learning; penmanship was usually a separate class, graded separately on report cards. In the 1960s, the Palmer Method was later supplanted by two other forms of cursive — the Zaner-Bloser Method and the D'Nealian method.

D'Nealian Method

The D'Nealian method of cursive writing is one of the two most common forms taught today. (Andrew Buck)

Then, in the early 2000s, handwriting lessons started disappearing entirely as computers became more widespread.

State legislatures probably can't save cursive

The Common Core didn't kill cursive. Cursive was already dying. In 2003, according to a Vanderbilt University report, teachers spent less than 10 minutes per day on handwriting instruction — down from up to two hours in the 1950s.

In 2006, when the SAT began requiring students to write essays, 15 percent of students used cursive — although the students who used cursive got slightly higher scores. The PSAT requires students to write a paragraph in cursive saying that they won't cheat, a requirement that has produced plenty of angst even though today's test-takers learned to write in class long before the Common Core. "Students who aren't sure how to write in script should do the best they can," the College Board counsels teachers in its guide to the test.

But the real reason cursive is fading is that the arguments in favor of it are pretty weak. They usually center on students being able to read the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (which were originally written in copperplate script, and are hard to decipher even for people who studied cursive in school) or on developing fine motor skills, which can also be cultivated in other ways.

As teachers devote more and more time to preparing students for standardized tests, the amount of wiggle room in the curriculum for cursive will probably decrease — just as simpler handwriting styles replaced the elaborate cursive of the 19th century. Legislation can forestall that, but not forever.