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On National Handwriting Day, an ode to cursive writing

Of all the merit badge requirements out there, my absolute favorite is requirement 7a of the Eagle-required Communication merit badge.

Here it is: “Write to the editor of a magazine or your local newspaper to express your opinion or share information on any subject you choose. Send your message by fax, email, or regular mail.”

One of the reasons I favor this requirement is purely selfish: I like reading the letters sent to the editors of Boys’ Life and Scouting magazines, a group of which I consider myself a lucky member. We circulate these letters (yes, we really read what your Scouts write!), and seeing what Scouts have written is one of the coolest parts of my job.

The other reason I appreciate requirement 7a is because it encourages Scouts to write. And sometimes, though not always, they do that writing by hand, practicing cursive skills that are rapidly declining in this age of thumb-typed text messages and keyboard-aided status updates.

Many of my favorite letters are the handwritten ones. Somehow they seem more special, with each Scout conveying a bit of his personality in the way he dots his I’s and crosses his T’s.

Sure, the quality of the cursive is far from the gorgeous swoops, curls and swirls of our Founding Fathers, but at least these young men are trying. That’s more than you can say for most of our youth today — members of a generation that learns keystrokes instead of pen strokes.

Cursive handwriting is a dying art, and with National Handwriting Day coming on Jan. 23 (not coincidentally the birthday of John Hancock), I thought it was an appropriate time to ask the expert why cursive handwriting is worth saving.

I have just the expert: Linda Shrewsbury, creator and president of CursiveLogic, who has an innovative, intuitive approach for teaching cursive handwriting. Her mission: preserve cursive handwriting for the next generation.

I’ll let Linda take it from here in this guest post:

Linda+HeadshotWhy cursive handwriting still matters

By Linda Shrewsbury, CursiveLogic

The thing that drives me about the need for teaching cursive writing is the link between handwriting and cognitive development. It doesn’t matter whether adults use handwriting or not. Children need to write. It’s foundational for the development of their literacy.

Research has shown that writing by hand strengthens the learning process. According to the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre:

When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. This kind of feedback is significantly different from what we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

My experience in the classroom has shown me how children’s literacy suffers when teaching them to write legibly is not a priority in the classroom. As the University of Stavanger study concluded, handwriting is a foundational skill.

We can’t replace how cursive handwriting is tied to literacy; the two really go together. It’s like taking the rungs from the bottom of a ladder; how do you master the first few steps in the learning process without all the rungs needed to climb and advance?

I was inspired to develop a more rapid system of teaching cursive through my work with a young man named Josh. He graduated from high school but couldn’t really read or write well. I became his reading tutor and was touched when Josh asked me also to teach him cursive so he could sign his name.

I didn’t think the traditional cursive curriculum for children would work for Josh because it required too much time. So I worked out a system that organized the lowercase cursive alphabet into four groups, based on shape and the initial cursive stroke that was common to each letter in the group. Using the patterns I showed him, Josh learned to form his lowercase cursive letters in 45 minutes. I then showed him his uppercase initials and he was able to sign his name. We were both stunned. It was incredible to see Josh catch on so quickly to forming and connecting cursive letters.

The ease with which I have seen many other students learn cursive — and the confidence and sense of accomplishment that follows — quashes the argument that cursive writing is too hard and time-consuming to learn.

My role with the BSA in this cursive-awareness effort is to help empower young people with a life skill that is going to be foundational to their academic work and their personal lives as well. Think about penning a love note, a note of condolence or congratulating a friend for a major accomplishment. Cursive writing humanizes us; it’s an individual skill and a unique way that we can express ourselves.

And think about the legacy we leave the next generation if we don’t teach them how to write and read the cursive hand of our founding fathers and ancestors? Our nation’s Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as well as treasured family histories and records could become no more than sheets of hieroglyphics for future generations to decipher.

The skill of cursive handwriting is worth preserving and passing on. I thank the BSA for the opportunity to join them in this important initiative.

19 Comments on On National Handwriting Day, an ode to cursive writing

  1. There’s a reason cursive is ‘a dying art’. It’s resource intensive – although cheap, you still have to find paper, pencil, and a surface to write on, hard to share with more than one person at a time, and difficult to store and recall for later use. While those of us with primary educations that occurred before 2005 are a little shocked at how quickly cursive, and handwriting as a whole, have disappeared, the age of information relies on the quick dissemination of content to a number of people. Speaking for myself, I can type far faster than I can write. I can read and write cursive (born in 1960) and although I’ve read both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, it was in reprinted format.

    The interesting thing I found about Ms. Shrewsbury’s article was that it took her only 45 minutes to teach cursive to an engaged learner with an understanding of written communication. Not everyone can read Old English either, but scholars have no trouble with Chaucer or Beowulf. There will be those that can read cursive 50 years from now, but I would rather my children and grandchildren spend the time I did learning cursive to learn to use all ten fingers to type. Their world won’t use cursive any more than mine used fountain pens.

  2. I must say that my handwriting is so terrible that I don’t subject people to it. Since, I have learned to use a keyboard that is how I write. I, in fact, find the keyboard freeing since I can think more about what I write opposed to thinking about how I write. I only handwrite when writing checks.

  3. I do find it a shame that cursive is dying out. But it is more of a handicap to our children who are coming out of school not being taught any of it. Many of these kids are going to be entering a workforce and society in which they must “sign their name” to employment applications, legal documents, bank deposits, etc.. They DON’T KNOW HOW!!!! Even my sons, both Eagles now at 18 and 21, had to figure it out. My 18 year old had to sign his name to a document once and actually had to pull his phone out, do an internet search on cursive and figure out how to write his name. Yes, texting and keyboard based communication and authentication is taking over. It is quicker, easier, etc., all characteristics of our society demanding instant gratification. But we need to keep our kids grounded a bit….teach them the basics.

  4. I agree with Brian 100%. It is hard to a be a good citizen without knowledge of cursive. I suspect that as more states reject Common Core, cursive will be taught again in at least some of those schools. Maybe there will be a new a career field; “Cursive Translator”.

  5. True, technology has been freeing for a lot of people who can’t or won’t use a pencil & paper. However, learning cursive teaches mental & motor skills. Taking notes by hand helps with memory retention. Handwriting teaches children that they can create something with their hands that is unique to them. Anyone can use a keyboard. But what you write with your own hand is yours. In this day, where computers do just about everything for us, I believe that handwriting helps us use our brains & continue to learn for ourselves. Just because we no longer use fountain pens doesn’t mean we don’t need to learn cursive, anymore than having spell check on the computer means we don’t need to learn to spell.

  6. Cursive handwriting sucks and should die in a fire. Writing should be neat, clean, easily read, and easily parsed by OCR software. Print has all of that in spades. Cursive has none of that.

    Additionally, cursive’s rules are not consistent across all letters, for instance how o, v, r, and e are formed, not to mention whether you count the top loops for m and n or the bottom jags, because there seems to be an even split on the issue. I could go on, at great length, pointing out all the inconsistencies, but I’ll simply end by saying the system is not internally consistent and software has a really hard time parsing it.

    Paper records are a waste of good trees, and the only thing that paper should be necessary for is drawing, math, wrapping presents, disposable towels, and toilet paper. As tablets and an accompanying stylus become more prevalent, even those uses should eventually fall by the wayside.

    There’s a reason I bought a Note as my phone with its stylus. I can write notes (with print) and the phone will pick up on different parts of the note that I outline, and automatically open my email app or the phone app or the maps app with the addressing information already filled out.

    Tl;dr Cursive is a useless, pointless skill which has as much value as studying ancient Chinese calligraphy (great if you’re a scholar of ancient languages, but pointless otherwise) and I’m ecstatic that many elementary schools no longer teach this waste of a skill.

    • T. Scarborough // January 22, 2016 at 7:42 pm // Reply

      You totally missed most of what Ms. Shrewsbury had to say. There is a proven cognitive link to literacy and writing in cursive. English is not consistent in ANY of its rules, but I doubt it will be given up anytime soon. Many things in our lives are not consistent. That does not mean we ignore them. We learn the inconsistencies and carry on.

      Paper records are not “a waste of trees”. While paper may be destroyed by fire or water — hard drive crashes, dead batteries, and viruses have no effect on it. And don’t get me started on how environmentally incorrect all the plastic, metals, and hazardous chemicals found in tablets and phones are.

      I, for one, am glad to see someone put into writing what I have felt all along — that the younger generations not using cursive are not learning language and how to communicate as deeply as their predecessors. (I include “using” because when I fussed that my son wasn’t taught cursive, it was pointed out that yes, he was taught it. They just don’t use it once it’s taught! If it’s not on the state’s Standard of Learning test, they don’t bother with it around here!)

      • Cubmaster Daniel // January 26, 2016 at 2:57 pm // Reply

        There is no empirical link between CURSIVE and cognitive development. There is a link between HANDWRITING and cognivitive development. Cursive is not required to teach handwriting, contrary to what the sentimental may be believe.

        Most developed societies meet the cognitive development requirements of their elementary-age pupils using methods other than calligraphy, of which cursive is one form. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Germans, etc. etc. Japanese and Korean students are not required to learn calligraphic forms of Chinese characters (Kanji and Hanja) in order to achieve literacy.

        In 2016, teaching cursive as a core element of the elementary school curriculum is a monumental waste of valuable time.

    • Nahila Nakne // January 25, 2016 at 9:13 am // Reply


      “Paper records are a waste of good trees, and the only thing that paper should be necessary for is drawing, math, wrapping presents, disposable towels, and toilet paper. As tablets and an accompanying stylus become more prevalent, even those uses should eventually fall by the wayside.”

      You do know that historians can easily read documents from WWI, heck even as far back as the French and Indian War, but they cannot easily ready declassified documents from Desert Shield/Storm? Reason is that the Desert Shield/Storm records are digital, and you need antiquated hardware, museums are where folks are finding them at, in order to read the documents.

      Further NASA has a large warehouse with digital records that are no longer accessible because the hardware AND software to read them are antiquated.

      And what happens when that tablet runs out of batteries, breaks, etc., especially in the backcountry?

  7. I believe that cursive is important to learn because of the motor skills gained. For those who say technology will replace it, go sit in college class with my Eagle Scout. He is taking two computer science classes and computers are banned from the classrooms! Good thing he knows how to write in print and cursive.

  8. My Troop turns 100 in a couple years. I spent the last couple months scanning in every charter from 1918 and entering all the names from them into an Excel spreadsheet. I can’t tell you how much I hated cursive handwriting while doing this. Trying to decipher names that were written in cursive is a massive PITA. THere are MANY names in my spreadsheet that look like this “M??T?? L????R?E??” because those were the only letters I could decipher.

    I had done the scans with high resolution, and I would zoom all the way in on a name until it filled the whole screen, and even then I often couldn’t read it. And this wasn’t one isolated year. This continued over the course of decades with multiple leaders doing the charters. For all of them it was the same problem. I’m sure the leader from way back when could look at the scrawl that represented the name above and say “Oh, that’s Matthew Lomotran in the Scorpions Patrol”, but 90 years later it’s just a squiggle on the page.

  9. My 18 year old was only taught cursive in like 3rd grade, and he loved it! But, never did it again. Every Scout in my Troop, and not all of them go to the same school, do not write in cursive. Eagle Scout applications always come back to me saying, the Scout did not sign it, to which I reply, yes he did, the printed name is his signature.

  10. I would love to see cursive come back! I found it very interesting that Ms Shewsbury has found a correlation cursive writing and improved brain function. I have felt for a long time that it was a mistake to stop teaching cursive. And in many areas they are doing minimal with printing skills.

    In my den (4th or 5th) graders or my God and Me or God and Family classes often when I ask them what they wrote, they can’t read it. Because often it was not written on that day…..they can’t read it or remember what they wrote! And that is printing, not cursive. Apparently our schools do minimal job of teaching printing as well. And definitely no cursive. I watch kids print and they don’t even form the letters properly.

    Technology is great and it is here to stay but it cannot replace handwriting totally. At a minimum young people have to be able to sign their names! And the comment above by BuckRunDon is proof of that. When I use a tablet and stylus at my doctor’s office, it still requires a signature. Are we going to go back to where people have to “sign” with their Mark? Sometimes I feel like that.

    Thank you Ms Shewsbury for developing this program. I will be looking at it even though I do not have any connection to schools in my area. My grandchildren currently live overseas.

    • Yesterday's Scout // January 22, 2016 at 10:53 pm // Reply

      Not only can they not form letters correctly (print or cursive) many I have seen cannot form numbers correctly. And although it is off topic it should be mentioned that their reading ability is atrocious. It is painful to listen to many of today’s teens try to read aloud. A generation of functional illiterates ….

  11. Thank you, Linda Shrewsbury, for citing the University of Stavanger study, which concluded that handwriting is a foundational skill. I was not familiar with the study. As a grandmother of three boys 6, 3 and 2, I was very relieved to learn that the Indiana Senate passed a bill just today requiring the teaching of cursive writing in our schools. I have shared this article on both Facebook and Twitter. Frankly, the thought of anyone thinking printing is an adequate substitute for ‘signing’ one’s name is ludicrous. Kudos to Josh for wanting to learn how to sign his name and for your diligence in developing a method to teach older children cursive in an expeditious manner.

  12. Cursive handwriting is a buggy whip skill. How many of you use a buggy whip anymore? How many know what a buggy whip is? In fact typewriting is about to be replaced with voice dictation. In fact I’m writing this comment using voice. I can type far faster than I can write in cursive and I can dictate in voice far faster than I can type. I learned to type as a ten year old back in the early sixties (some dream about being a reporter. ;-). It was one of the best career moves I ever made. Working for IBM in the 70’s and 80’s most engineers and managers couldn’t type, what an advantage to have. Cursive was already dead then. As far as dexterity, ever see a serious gamer on a complex controller, somehow it’s hard to imagine that cursive can compete at that level of dexterity. The world is changing and for the better, cursive is a beautiful skill but like calligraphy not really productive enough for general communications. Typing will follow and voice will probably eventually be replaced too.

  13. The history we value most is the “unofficial”, personal history. Tom Edison’s lab note books are so much more interesting than the history book related items. When you watch Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary, which is the more heart rending, the battle scenes or the letters from the soldiers? I value my parents letters to me while I was at college and camp , in their handwriting (and they saved mine! boy has my handwriting changed, but still recognizably mine). Why would someone save an email memo? But Lincoln’s orders and letters, in his hand, are what are the most valuable and revealing.
    I will hold on to my childrens’ handwritten school stuff for the rest of my life. Their typed up term papers? Oh, they are neat and proof of our kid’s untapped talent, for sure, but the stuff from the HAND, not the word processor (is your hand/mind a processor of words or thoughts?) is what is to be treasured.

    I had a hard time convincing our Scoutson Joe to improve his handwriting (f’s that look like Euros) and now he believes me, as his co-workers have writing worse than his. NOW he wants to be able to say folks can read his notes to them….

    “Show me what a man does with his hands that I may know his heart (Amish maxim)”. So what is important? To be understood later?

  14. Learning to write in cursive helps develop fine motor skills. It’s easier to take written notes than printing notes. There is a Scout in our troop that sends written thank you notes to the adults who have been on his Star and Life boards or who have helped him as merit badge counselors. Both of our school age granddaughters send written thank you notes and this “Peepaw” tries to write them weekly. Cursive writing is a life skill that will serve you well. There’s the chance that a written thank you note after an interview may help you land the job.

  15. In my troop growing up, my scoutmaster didn’t make announcements, he wote them in the troop notebook for the SPL to read. Not an easy task as his handwriting was messier than some boys!

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