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August 29, 2012 - Posted by Lucy to Staff Musings

Origins of Cursive

Cursive exists in many languages, including Greek, Russian, and Chinese, but this article will concentrate solely on English cursive, which is the practice of writing conjoined letters. Although it was originally used to increase writing speed, cursive is also valued for its aesthetic qualities.

Its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint, but it’s certain that English cursive existed in some form before 1066. By the 16th century it was quite popular, but tended to vary from person to person and defied standardization. When Thomas Jefferson committed the Declaration of Independence to paper, he joined most -- but not all -- of his letters. By the time Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address, cursive had developed into a more modern and recognizable form.

The original draft of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1776.

A draft of The Gettysburg Address written by Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863.


Is Cursive Outdated?

If we assume that the cursive writer is actively practicing his penmanship, he can achieve up to 60 WPM (with the words on the higher end of the scale nearly illegible to readers). Typists, on the other hand, can easily achieve 100+ WPM with no significant sacrifice in legibility. Now that typing with a keyboard has eclipsed cursive in pure speed, why continue teaching it?

This is the basic gist of the argument against cursive, which was solidified by the new state standards implemented in 2009. The standards stated that cursive was no longer a requirement, and that states could choose whether or not to teach cursive writing. While Massachusetts and California opted to continue teaching cursive, many schools dropped it in favor of keyboard proficiency classes. The fact that cursive writing isn’t tested made the decision even easier. It began to seem frivolous, over-complicated, and obsolete.

However, learning to write cursive does confer some benefits that aren’t immediately obvious.

Although cursive isn’t strictly necessary for signatures (illiterates can sign with a simple ‘X’), it’s useful for producing unique signatures that are less susceptible to fraud. In an educational context, cursive is instrumental in developing children’s fine motor skills. It promotes visual recognition and learning of letters in a way that typing doesn’t. In cursive, each letter has its own precise shape, and requires attention to detail. In contrast, typing is just the same pressing motion over and over, albeit with different fingers at different positions.

Many people also report that it’s easier to remember key facts and figures after writing them down. Something about the physical act of copying information down helps to commit it to memory. Muscle memory isn’t just for musicians and athletes -- it also works for academics! Remember getting homework assignments to write each vocabulary word ten times? It’s actually a fairly reliable way of absorbing information.

Of course, these educational benefits also apply to print, but there are a few key differences that favor cursive. Cursive requires less strokes per letter than print, which makes it more memorable, and the connectedness of the letters encourages the brain to remember words rather than individual letters. It enhances retention and reading comprehension better than either typing or printing, as evidenced by a study performed by neuroscientist Dr. Karin James. In this study, college students were told to copy and memorize a passage from a book. One group typed the passage, a second printed it, and the last wrote it in cursive. A week later, all three groups were evaluated on how effectively they had memorized the passage. The group that wrote in cursive had consistently higher scores.


Cursive as an Art Form

Cursive isn’t dead yet. In fact, it’ll probably stick around for decades to come. But a century from now, it’s likely that cursive will have ceded its current position to the keyboard.

Even though the utility of cursive has declined, its aesthetic appeal remains. The fact that script fonts exist tells us that humans still find cursive appealing, and that it has a place in our culture. It seems entirely possible that a century from now, cursive will be the English equivalent of Japanese calligraphy. Though it might not be taught to every child in every classroom, it’ll be a respected skill wielded by interested individuals. Wedding invitations, poetry, and perhaps even doodles will use specialized pens (like the Pelikan Script Italic) to write stylized cursive with elegant flourishes.

What are your thoughts on cursive? Should it be taught in schools, or is it an outdated skill? Share in the comments!

Related:
Better Learning Through Handwriting
The Neural Correlates of Handwriting and its Affect on Reading Acquisition




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