Digital Education

Can Cursive Survive in the Digital Age?

In a February 25 comic strip, Grand Avenue cartoonist Mike Thompson nailed existing student angst about cursive handwriting.

He drew two youngsters standing in front of a mailbox, staring at an envelope addressed in cursive, wondering what the “scribbles” meant.

“So it’s a secret code that only older people can understand!” one finally exclaims.

Tina Spurlock, an AP® English Language and Composition teacher at El Capitan High School in Merced, Calif., understands their disbelief. The teaching veteran used to give written feedback in cursive, until her students stopped her.

“[They’d] say, ‘I can’t read your writing,’” Spurlock said. “They didn’t have that trouble 10 years ago.”

In 2024, the world communicates by texting, typing, and using voice-recognition to instantaneously send messages anywhere. Our relationship with artificial intelligence (AI) is also getting serious. In that context, writing cursive feels quaint, like throwing a complete game in baseball.

Public schools don’t prioritize cursive in their curriculum. Students are generally not taught cursive anymore, so they don’t write it or read it. Meanwhile teachers still assign handwritten work, and that isn’t going well.

“My freshmen have horrible handwriting, just terrible,” said Julie Clark, an associate professor at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.

We could let cursive die but, now that we’re losing those skills, some people want to bring it back. Yikes.

The only constant is change

Different languages have different origin stories for cursive. What we consider familiar in English developed in the 17th century and has been evolving ever since. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in cursive, but didn’t connect all of his letters.

Though cursive has been taught in U.S. schools since 1850, the ballpoint pen, the telephone, typewriters, and computers have slowly pushed cursive toward being sort of anachronistic itself.

Fourteen years ago, when national experts developed new education benchmarks known as Common Core, they didn’t include benchmarks for cursive. They felt that since school-age children are now spending 5½  to 8½  hours per day using social media, gaming and texting, they were already learning skills—keyboarding and an ease with technology—they’d need for the digital age.

Signing one’s name with a come-hither flourish wasn’t one of them. (FYI: You needn’t sign official documents in cursive for them to be legal. You can print your name or use an X. Heck, you could be Prince and use a symbol if you wanted.)

Teaching cursive has fallen off in the U.S., but reasons to keep cursive alive have not.

Some think we should keep it so students can read historical documents written in cursive. (In 2023, the National Park Service had to put out an all-call for volunteers who could read cursive to help transcribe pension records from the Revolutionary War.)

Also, science says “running writing”  helps students make connections in their brains that keyboarding does not. And many feel writing in cursive has artistic qualities and celebrates individualism.

Testing challenges abound

For educators, there is still the prosaic reality of things like testing where students are still expected to craft and write out their responses. Students report feeling more stressed out while taking standardized tests that require essays or written responses.

“[They’ll] write little notes like, ‘Sorry for my handwriting!’” said Lily Chiu, senior director and assessment manager for AP English Language exams at College Board.

On standardized tests like the Advanced Placement® (AP) exams, students have been backing away from using cursive for a while now. Just 15 percent of students taking the SAT® in 2006 wrote in cursive. And with the SAT essay discontinued in 2021 and the launch of a fully digital SAT this year, the need to write, especially in cursive, means even less practice.  

“I had one [student last summer] with very strong, very fluid handwriting, but it was illegible,” Chiu said. “We could make out just enough to know they knew the topic and were addressing the prompt. It was one of the most frustrating experiences.”

The College Board, which administers written and digital AP exams, does instruct students to write legibly. Chiu said AP readers, however, do see evidence that students are laboring to complete thoughts and rushing to finish written exams.

STEM exams are different, since they’re heavy on symbols and numbers. Clark, who is also a Chief Reader for AP Calculus exams, said AP readers now need more time to grade each mathematical response due to the poor handwriting they often see. The College Board uses handwriting experts to help decipher the worst cases.

“The biggest thing we tell everyone while scoring is to read what [students] write, but ‘don’t read their minds,’” Clark said.

Thankfully, poor penmanship doesn’t seem to affect the quality of students’ responses. Quality is important for everyone involved.

“AP classes are high stakes in schools,” Chiu said. “Often a school’s and a teacher’s performance are tied to student performance on these exams.”

In 2025, the College Board will begin administering certain AP exams digitally to all students, except those needing accommodations. They’ll add other subjects annually.

AP Calculus will be among the last to go digital because it uses symbols that are not standard on a keyboard. They could end up being administered with tablets and digital styluses. That will require infrastructure not every school district in America has, and that technology won’t solve sloppy penmanship, cursive or otherwise.

Spurlock worries about anything that would change how students interact with the exam source material before they write.

“I don’t know if they’ll be able to digitally annotate,” Spurlock said. “I’m worried about that step. … I’d much rather see their ideas. I think the College Board agrees. In that sense, I think going digital will be good for students.”

Going backward, moving forward

University of Southern California professor of education Morgan Polikoff, who penned a 2010 New York Times op-ed entitled: “Let Cursive Handwriting Die,” finds it odd that the anxious discourse over handwriting continues.

“I wrote that as a one-off,” Polikoff said. “But kids are way behind in achievement and attendance is down. We’re facing serious problems [in education], and what is the [California] legislature doing? They’re mandating cursive.”

In fact, 27 states have reinstated cursive instruction, including California. Five others have introduced similar bills. Ironically, this potentially ill-advised comeback might help tamp down a new concern.

“So many high schools and colleges are also going back to requiring handwritten assignments, so they know students aren’t using [AI] to cheat,” Chiu said. “I think it’s good that cursive is coming back.”