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Handwriting's on the wall: Cursive is fading from school curriculum

By Lloyd Jones

CONWAY — Cursive used to be as common as math, science and English in classrooms across the nation, but beginning next year it may become a thing of the past with the implementation of Common Core Standards, which do not include instruction in cursive handwriting.

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 from most public schools.

Since 2010, 45 states — including New Hampshire — 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 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."

It is unclear whether local schools will opt to offer cursive instruction, or to what extent.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative is "a state-led effort that included math, reading, and curriculum specialists, in partnership with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The purpose was to establish a single set of clear educational expectations for English language arts/literacy and mathematics that states can share and voluntarily adopt. New Hampshire has embedded the standards from this initiative into our College and Career Ready Standards. The State Board of Education adopted the new standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics at their July 8, 2010 meeting, committing to a thoughtful, orderly transition process for implementation and assessment to ensure that all New Hampshire students experience a successful and productive future."

The goal of the standards is to develop uniform education standards that spell out what students in kindergarten through 12th grade are taught so they can be competitive in the global economy. States can supplement the national rules with state standards.

The national standards don't require children to learn how to read and write in cursive. They do, however, require that by the end of fourth grade, students demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to complete a one-page writing assignment.

The requirement is found in the literacy standards for English Language Arts for fourth graders in a section that spells out standards for writing: "With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting."

The Common Core Standards don't preclude teaching cursive writing. But as more time is devoted to mastering skills mandated by the standards, penmanship is dropped or less time is spent on it.

States and districts are grappling with whether to teach this skill. Last month North Carolina passed a bill making cursive part of the school curriculum, joining California, Georgia and Massachusetts who also added a cursive requirement to the national standards. Some states, including Indiana and Hawaii, dropped cursive from their curricula in favor of keyboard proficiency as early as 2011.

According to Wikipedia, on the 2006 SAT, a United States post-secondary education entrance exam, only 15 percent of the students wrote their essay answers in cursive.

• In a 2007 survey of 200 teachers of first through third grades in all 50 American states, 90 percent of respondents said their schools required the teaching of cursive.

• A 2008 nationwide survey found elementary school teachers lacking formal training in teaching handwriting to students. Only 12 percent of teachers reported having taken a course in how to teach it.

• In 2012, the states of Indiana and Hawaii announced that their schools will no longer be required to teach cursive (but will still be permitted to), and instead will be required to teach "keyboard proficiency." As of 2011 the same was true of Illinois. Since the nationwide proposal of the Common Core State Standards in 2009, which do not include instruction in cursive, the standards have been adopted by 44 states as of July 2011, all of which have debated whether to augment them with cursive.

Many argue that cursive has become obsolete.

For many students, cursive is becoming as foreign as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, according to Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. 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.

"Cursive should be allowed to die. In fact, it's already dying, despite having been taught for decades," Polikoff told The New York Times this spring. "Very small proportions of adults use cursive for their day-to-day writing. Much of our communication is done on a keyboard, and the rest is done with print.

"I think it's important to have nice handwriting, but the importance of having to learn two kinds of handwriting seems unnecessary given the vast method of communication is on a keyboard," he added.

Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax (Virginia) 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.”

Hairston said 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."

Others claim cursive is important because it's faster and more efficient than printed writing.

"It's not calligraphy. It's functional," Suzanne Asherson of Handwriting Without Tears, a handwriting program for teachers, told the Los Angeles Times. "When a child knows the mechanics of forming letters in cursive, they can better focus on their content."

Handwriting Without Tears advocates a simpler method of cursive writing, minus all the curls, loops and other decorative flourishes.

Asherson wrote an op-ed piece April 30 on the need to maintain cursive in our schools.

"Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of emails, texts and tweets. In fact, learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.

"As a result, the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation. Interestingly, a few years ago, the College Board found that students who wrote in cursive for the essay portion of the SAT scored slightly higher than those who printed, which experts believe is because the speed and efficiency of writing in cursive allowed the students to focus on the content of their essays.

"Some argue that cursive is no longer relevant because it isn't included in the Common Core State Standards. But these standards only include those skills that are testable and measurable in the classroom; they don’t address basic foundation skills, like handwriting or even spelling. That said, the Common Core emphasizes the importance of expository writing to demonstrate understanding of key concepts, and fast, legible handwriting is the technology universally available to students to facilitate content development. Cursive, therefore, is vital to helping students master the standards of written expression and critical thinking, life skills that go well beyond the classroom.

"With all this said, does cursive need to be fancy with slants, loops and curls? Absolutely not! The emphasis should be on simplicity and function when teaching children cursive.

"Regardless of the age we are in or the technological resources at one’s disposal, success is measured by thought formation, and the speed and efficiency in which it is communicated. Because of this, students need a variety of technologies, including cursive handwriting, to succeed."

 

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