Cursive May Rebound As Tablet Market Expands

Email a Friend

It’s no surprise that cursive has suffered in the last two decades as more tasks were completed on the QWERTY keyboards of desktops, laptops and mobile phones.

To your average 21st century high school student, cursive is about as relevant as cuneiform or the quill and ink used to draft the Constitution.

"I just know how to write my name," said 14-year-old Islam El Shakshuki, a freshman at the Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan. "That's it."

But the keyboard is no longer the only game in town. Since the iPad’s debut in April 2010, there’s been an explosion in touchscreen tablet computers and large-screen smartphones, and that means more people have the option to write on screens with digital pens, or styluses.

"We’re definitely seeing more styluses on the marketplace,” said Stephen Baker, industry analyst at the NPD Group.

This fall, consumers will get their hands on new stylus-compatible touchscreens like Amazon’s HD Kindle Fires, the Windows Surface, and the Samsung Galaxy Note II, a so-called “phablet” (phone-tablet) because its 5.5-inch screen dwarfs those of most smartphones.

Americans are expected to own 60.7 million tablet computers by the end of the year and double that number by 2018, according to Forrester Research.

So could the thriving market for styluses and tablets revive the dying art of cursive?

“The iPad offers a possibility,” said Rich Christen, professor of education at the University of Portland.

Apple’s Steve Jobs repeatedly pooh-poohed the stylus. “God gave us 10 styluses — let’s not invent another,” he said, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography.

And while he designed the iPhone and iPad to be manipulated with the fingertips, software developers swooped in with boatloads of apps that allow for writing with a stylus.

Notability, for example, allows users to jot down ideas by hand and share them via email, Twitter or DropBox. Photos and video can be integrated into the handwritten notes and easily mixed with notes typed directly on the iPad.

"The tablet and being able to combine typing with handwriting will keep handwriting around for a long time," said Justin Brock of Ginger Labs, creator of Notability.

There are also dozens of apps for the iPad and Android tablets geared toward children just learning cursive. And this website offers interactive cursive lessons.

The apps are easy enough to use, but there can be speed bumps along the way for kids with little hands and less-than-fine motor skills.

“The funny thing is that kids prefer the laptops,” said Shirley Harkins, a teacher as P.S. 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “If they have to type in a website address or something, they’re not looking forward to using the iPad.”

There’s also the broader issue of accessibility, according to Noah Elkin, principal analyst at the research firm eMarketer.

For tablet computers to have an effect on cursive instruction, they need to “come down to a price point where they're standard accessories for high school students or college students or even younger than that,” he said.

These factors aside, professor Rich Christen said he hopes tablet computers can prevent cursive from evaporating like disappearing ink.

“There’s an elegance to it,” he said of cursive. “Communicating becomes more than a pragmatic, utilitarian thing. It becomes something that has a beauty or an aesthetic.”

This report is part of a series on technology in schools by WNYC's New Tech City.