Why did we learn cursive?

If you grew up in the 20th century, or heck, even into the early 2000s, and you are a speaker of English, you might have gone through the ordeal of learning penmanship, and most particularly, the cursive script, at some point in either preschool, primary school, or elementary school depending on your education system. For some, like Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarussian speakers, you might even be using the cursive Cyrillic script to this very day. The mention of cursive might remind some of their childhood, or invoke some negative memories about it. You might feel nostalgic for that time, since now most would rather type texts than write. But when looking back, probably the most asked question would be, why on earth was I forced to learn that?

Cursive writing is not new. Centuries or millennia old, it is defined as the style of writing where characters are joined in a flowing manner, although some can have joined and pen lifts at some points. Literally coming from the Middle French word meaning “running”, cursif, or Medieval Latin cursivus, there were several arguments put forward to justify the cursive script, and subsequently, its use in the classroom. Now, subsequent arguments for and against primarily focuses on the English alphabet, although things would work out differently in other classrooms, like those using the Cyrillic alphabet, and other writing systems.

For English at least, the quill was the primary writing tool back in the day when paper or leather was used for writing. Fragile and prone to ink spatter, the main way to minimise the number of quills to go through in one manuscript would be to lower the number of times the quill should be lifted from the writing substrate, which can be leather or paper. Printing block letters using a quill was thus seen as unfavourable since that meant a large amount of quill lifts when writing, and so, letters in a word were joined together, resulting in the main body of a word being written in one flowing stroke, with the dotted i’s and crossed t’s coming thereafter. This was probably the primary motivation for the invention of cursive writing. This motivation still lived on centuries later, when innovations in writing technology occurred, starting with the steel dip pen, and the fountain pen.

Another held belief was that writing in cursive could help you write faster. Since one stroke is needed to get the main shape of the word out, then following up with dots and crosses, it does sound like a compelling argument, as opposed to the more isolated block letters that involved more strokes and pen lifts.

Other proponents for cursive writing education suggested that cursive writing could help develop fine motor skills, brain development, and memory in younger children, at least those are the arguments put forward by various education blogs and websites. But there are studies supporting both sides of the cursive debate, such as one by Early in 1973.

There is also a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020 showing that cursive writing and drawing activities could help brain electrical activity in younger children, in an apparent support for cursive writing education. However, this study only compared cursive writing, typewriting, and drawing, omitting out block letter writing altogether. The lack of comparisons between cursive and block writing in this study would pose as a limitation to this study’s apparent support for cursive writing. In fact, the authors emphasised the importance of handwriting and drawing in schools, the former could technically represent both block and cursive despite cursive being the primary treatment group studied.

But does cursive writing really help you write faster? There was a study on schoolchildren conducted in 2013 which assessed the writing speeds of cursive script and block letters. The researchers found that there was no significant difference in writing speeds between the two writing styles, even regardless of the order of learning these styles (whether cursive was learnt before block or vice versa). Did this move call into question the necessity of cursive in the classroom?

Not necessarily. The turn of the 21st century had seen the advancement in computers and other computing technologies. Word processing software, electronic mail, and other digital text applications were gaining dominance, and written mail was on the decline. Heck, it was even reported that the favourability for cursive script started to decline since the invention, and later, mass production of the ballpoint pen in the late 19th century and the 1940s respectively. To some, if not, many, it was way easier and faster to type than to write. The modern attitude to cursive has been largely negative due to the perceived lack of necessity, and the time consuming nature to learn a skill now thought to be “useless”. Slowly, education systems worldwide in the anglosphere began phasing out teaching of cursive writing in the classroom, instead, focusing more on computer literacy and keyboard proficiency.

This phasing out leaves a sticking problem. Many historical documents were written in cursive. When the education of cursive writing ceases, who would be around decades later to interpret these historical documents? Would these eventually become illegible despite cursive being the same 26 letters of the English alphabet? Sure, not everyone needs to look at those historical documents, but it underscores the importance to preserve teaching the cursive script in some form.

But cursive, as a whole, is not entirely “useless”. In fact, cursive forms the backbone of several writing systems we see today. Arabic (and its derivatives) and Mongol bichig are prominent examples where cursive, or partial cursive systems are used, and block letters are not really existent. Sure individual letters do exist, but when placed with other letters, they would tend to join up in certain identifiable patterns.

In other cases, cursive forms more of a calligraphic art form than a proper backbone of a writing system. Chinese calligraphy, alongside calligraphies of East Asia, has a style called “grass script”, literally translating from the Chinese word “草書”. In some styles, legibility is almost entirely thrown out of the window, and is predominantly interpreted artistically. Such cursive systems use abstraction and alteration of individual character structures, and requires further training and practice to read and write these cursive scripts. This presents a challenge to other learners and speakers, who might exclusively read and write using the standard or printed forms of the characters.

Further reading

Early, G. H. (1973). The Case for Cursive Writing. Academic Therapy9(1), 105–108. https://doi.org/10.1177/105345127300900114

Askvik, E. O., van der Weel, F. R. & van der Meer, A. L. H. (2020). The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults. Front. Psychol., 11, 1810. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01810.

Bara, F. & Morin, M.-F. (2013). Does the Handwriting Style Learned in First Grade Determine the Style Used in the Fourth and Fifth Grades and Influence Handwriting Speed and Quality? A Comparison Between French and Quebec Children. Psychol. Schs., 50, 601-617. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21691.


One thought on “Why did we learn cursive?

  1. I don’t think cursive is useless, but when it comes to American English, it kind of is difficult to use with how fast the world is going that most assignments are quickly asked for, quickly produced, typed out, and so on that writing becomes something that you’d do on a free time—that is, if you have it.

    I feel indifferent with cursive. My handwriting looks better in cursive when I write notes, so I do it. But a lot of Baby Boomer and early Gen X make a big deal out of cursive that turns me off from using it.

    I’m a left handed individual and I probably have some motor issues—I always have—so I hold my pencil awkwardly to some people because it’s comfortable that way and they’ll comment about children these days don’t know how it’s like and if that person would’ve held their pencil how I did, they would’ve gotten their finger smacked.

    It deeply offended me because I was trying my hardest and I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought she was being funny, but I struggle with that.

    Nobody wants to hear that so it makes me not like writing because my hand posture and my handwriting never feel good enough. It still annoys me to this day and I think about it when I write.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s