The curlicue letters of cursive handwriting, once considered a mainstay of American elementary education, have been slowly disappearing from classrooms for years. Now, with most states adopting new national standards that don't require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated at most public schools.
For many students, cursive is becoming as foreign as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. In college lecture halls, more students take notes on laptops and tablet computers than with pens and notepads. Responding to handwritten letters from grandparents in cursive is no longer necessary as they, too, learn how to use email, Facebook and Skype.
And educators, seeking to prepare students for a successful future in which computer and typing skills have usurped penmanship, are finding cursive's relevance waning, especially with leaner school budgets and curricula packed with standardized testing prep. So they're opting not to teach it anymore.
"It's seeing the writing on the wall," said Patricia Granada, principal at Eagle View Elementary in Fairfax County, Va. "Cursive is increasingly becoming obsolete."
Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the largest teachers union in the county, called cursive "a dying art."
"Cursive writing is a traditional skill that has been replaced with technology," Hairston said. "Educators are having to make choices about what they teach with a limited amount of time and little or no flexibility. Much of their instructional time is consumed with teaching to a standardized test."
Since 2010, 45 states - including Arizona - and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, which do not require cursive instruction but leave it up to the individual states and districts to decide whether they want to teach it. A report the same year by the Miami-Dade public school system found that cursive instruction has been slowly declining nationwide since the 1970s.
"The Common Core State Standards allow communities and teachers to make decisions at the local level about how to teach reading and writing ... so they can teach cursive if they think it's what their students need," said Kate Dando, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which promotes the Common Core. "The standards define the learning targets that need to be met to ensure students graduate from high school prepared for success in college and careers. ... The decision to include cursive when teaching writing is left to states, districts, schools and teachers."
Proponents of cursive say that many of the country's historical documents were written in the fancy script, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They say that future historians who lack the ability to read cursive might not be able to study original historical documents.
Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive.
"I have to tell you, I can't remember the last time I read the Constitution," Graham said. "The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s."
He said that today's teachers value typing more than handwriting and that by the 12th grade, about half of all papers are composed on computers.
"When you think about the world in the 1950s, everything was by hand. Paper and pencil," Graham said. "Right now, it's a hybrid world."
Graham said the argument for keeping cursive around centers more on tradition than practicality.
"What I typically hear for keeping cursive is how nice it is when you receive a beautifully cursive-written letter. It's like a work of art," Graham said. "It's pretty, but is that a reason for keeping something, given that we do less and less of those kinds of cards anymore?"
Several states have tried to resurrect cursive writing. California, Georgia and Massachusetts have laws mandating cursive instruction, and last month, legislators in Idaho passed a bill instructing the state Board of Education to include cursive in the curriculum.
According to a 2006 College Board report, SAT essays written in cursive received a slightly higher score than those written in block print. But only 15 percent of the essays were written in cursive.
Apps for cursive
Parents who want their children to learn how to read and write cursive can turn to apps on the very devices that are making handwriting obsolete.
TeachWithYouriPad.com is an online clearinghouse for downloadable apps that can help students practice cursive on their own time. A similar search for "cursive handwriting" on the app finder lisisoft.com reveals 25 online programs that range from intensive instruction (the Zaner-Bloser Handwriting-Cursive app will challenge older students) to playful games (the Cursive Alphabet Monster will help lure young kids into handwriting lessons).
The program ABC Cursive Writing turns iPads into writing tablets, allowing students to practice uppercase, lowercase, whole words and cursive sentences. Similar programs such as iCanWrite and iWriteWords can help parents create cursive lessons at home.