A skill we once considered crucial has gone the way of home-ec and slide rules.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated September 13, 2017
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When even kindergartners can be seen tapping away on their iPads at lightning speed these days, does it matter that may never be able to sign an autograph with flourish? Or read a letter from Grandma in her loopy script?

If you have a teenager who still writes in the same block letters he learned in kindergarten, you’ve probably noticed that cursive writing has all but disappeared in most American schools, replaced by skills that are considered more important to 21st-century success, such as typing on a keyboard and conducting online research.

According to writing expert Steven Graham, PhD, a professor of education at Arizona State University, the change has been coming for the past couple of decades, even before the Common Core Standards were adopted in 2010, with no mention at all of cursive writing (the guidelines do, however, require that all students be able type at least one full page on a computer keyboard by fourth grade).

“You have print, cursive, and now keyboarding, and there isn’t enough time in the school day to teach it all,” says Graham. “So most schools are going to teach just one form of handwriting plus keyboarding, and the one form is almost always print.” And in fact, many experts believe that there is little advantage to learning two different forms of handwriting. “When you control for the amount of practice, the differences between print and cursive are pretty minimal,” Graham says. “You can write legibly and fluently in both.”

But still, the talk amongst parents in playgrounds and PTA meetings is that their their children will be at a disadvantage by not being able to write a beautiful thank-you letter or read historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence—and those concerns have made their way to state legislatures: In the last few years, about a dozen states, including Alabama, California, and Louisiana, have passed laws requiring schools to add script back to the classroom. And last year, New York City’s School Chancellor Carmen Fariña distributed a handbook encouraging third-grade teachers to bring back cursive.

Still, that leaves most elementary schools in the country with no pressing need to teach the swoops and curlicues that come with cursive writing. But Graham thinks we may all be focusing on the wrong point anyway: “There are so many things to master in being a fluent writer, such as spelling, constructing sentences, planning, and monitoring your work. Why is handwriting such a dominant part of the dialogue? We need to look at the bigger picture.”

Even if your school has no plans to bring back the art of beautiful, connected writing, you can always teach it to your child outside of school, by writing out letters and words for her to copy, or using apps such as Cursive Writing (iOS, free).

But like all styles, the cursive one may go out for a while, then come back in. Look for calligraphy classes to be all the rage when today’s third-graders are trendsetting 30-year-olds.