I have heard it said that today's schools are educating the Computer Generation-a group of students who have always had access to sophisticated computer technology to aid them in communication and a variety of other tasks.
In truth, the Computer Generation came through our schools 10 years ago. Today we are educating what I would call the iGeneration-students who are growing up with iPhones in their pockets and iPads in their backpacks, and communicate through methods like texting, Skype and live chat that were unimaginable, or certainly not mainstream, a generation ago.
We have a large monitor in the hallway of our lower/middle school that runs a continuous slideshow of photos from recent school events. It's not unusual to see a student touch the screen, expecting to interact with it. Today's students are fully, 100 percent digital. It's in their DNA.
This has led to a robust debate about whether certain subjects, such as handwriting-and cursive handwriting in particular-should be taught in today's schools. Many states have either dropped or considered dropping cursive writing instruction because it has been de-emphasized in the Common Core State Standards being adopted across the country. Those standards place a premium on computer literacy.
But the debate over whether to encourage computer literacy or cursive writing presents a false choice, as schools should be doing both. While today's schools should be ensuring that students become fluent in the latest technology, the research on teaching cursive writing also argues strongly for its inclusion in a modern academic program.
Research Demonstrates the Importance of Cursive
Research has shown many benefits for students who learn to read and write in cursive. Georgetown Day School begins handwriting instruction in Pre-Kindergarten and cursive writing instruction in second grade, and research has long affirmed the importance of handwriting instruction in helping children develop fine motor skills.
There is even a movement afoot among some reading experts to begin teaching cursive before block printing, as they have found that the connections between letters required in cursive writing may reduce letter reversals. Cursive instruction, these experts argue, improves literacy outcomes for many students.
Indiana University psychology Professor Karin James has begun to explain why. She performed brain scans on preK-age children who wrote by hand, versus those who typed or looked at letters. She found that the act of writing stimulated areas of the brain associated with learning to read. James also studied college students and found that they remembered information better when they wrote it in cursive, compared to when they printed or typed it.
The research on cursive writing demonstrates that it still deserves a place in modern pedagogy.
The Historical Importance of Cursive
It's been argued that schools today should only be teaching 21st century skills, and Georgetown Day School, like many schools, spends a great deal of time ensuring students have the skills that will prepare them for college and beyond. We have wireless Internet, state-of-the-art computer laboratories, Promethean Boards for instruction and more.
But the role of classic subjects in modern academic programs remains important. If schools only taught technologically heavy, modern skills, we would teach graphic design, but not classic painting; we would teach students how to mix audio digitally, but not how to play traditional musical instruments. Again, these are false choices. A diverse academic curriculum makes room for classic subjects and technology.
It is also important to consider the historical importance of cursive handwriting. Students who do not learn to write in cursive will also not learn to read cursive. As Judith Thurman argued in a July New Yorker online article, that means students will never be able to read an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.
There are countless documents, ranging from historically significant ones like the Declaration of Independence to personally valuable documents like letters or journals from grandparents that will become a foreign language to today's students if we fail to teach cursive.
Cursive handwriting is, in a sense, a language, and it is the shared language in which a great deal of history is told. Once languages are no longer shared from one generation to the next, they become nearly impossible to resurrect.
Let's Ask the Right Questions
Teaching cursive writing is not a zero-sum game. If we find ourselves asking whether we should be teaching cursive or technology, I would argue that we are asking the wrong question.
The right question for today's schools is how we can incorporate technology into our instruction to help students develop a sound academic foundation in a way that is efficient, effective and relevant to them. There are programs and applications that help educators teach cursive-as well as other subjects-in new and modern ways.
Ultimately, the discussion about modern cursive instruction will prove more productive than the conversation about eliminating cursive, because cursive writing has shown too many benefits to be banished from our classrooms.
Gloria Runyon is lower school principal at Georgetown Day School, a progressive PK-12 school located in Washington, D.C.