Just as in fashion, trends in education come and go. An average school day might no longer contain Latin, compulsory religious studies, or home economics, and it may not even include that old staple of primary education: cursive. As old-fashioned handwriting lessons make way for courses in keyboard skills, graphic design, and coding, some research suggests that this trend isn't necessarily for the best.
The proponents of a cursive-less classroom have some strong arguments on their side. There are only so many hours in the day, and certain skills need to be prioritized in an increasingly digital age. This kind of thinking is evident in the current federal Common Core standards for public education, which quietly exclude any form of handwriting instruction. Some states, including California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have passed their own legislation to combat this development, and they have some research to back this up.
A classic study by George H. Early, published in the Journal of Academic Therapy in 1976, notes a connection between first-grade students' instruction in cursive handwriting and their aptitude for reading and spelling. The hypothesis was that so-called "joined-up writing" led to a sort of joined-up thinking, in which the "continuous line in writing a word provides kinesthetic feedback about the shape of the words as a whole, which is absent in manuscript writing." Cursive, in Early's view, promoted words, rather than single letters, as complete units of thought—much more reflective of the way human brains need to process language for comprehension.
For those who dismiss Early's study as a quaint relic of a pre-computer age, Dr. Virginia Berninger, educational psychology professor at the University of Washington, insists that his assertions remain valid. "Cursive helps you connect things," she says. Berninger is quoted in a policy brief published by the National Association of State Boards of Education, which has come out strongly in support of cursive [PDF]. The brief argues that unlike typing, cursive's combined requirements of cognitive and motor skills necessitate formal instruction—keyboards are intuitive, but writing by hand is not.
While cursive handwriting may never regain the dominance it once saw in lesson plans, there's still some worth in all those curlicues and flourishes.