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Education

April 9, 2013

Cursive writing at risk in U.S. schools

INDIANAPOLIS — Not far from State Sen. Jean Leising’s capitol office is a museum that prominently displays documents penned by Abraham Lincoln. It’s a favorite educational destination for Indiana schoolchildren in the state where the 16th president grew up.

But Leising worries Lincoln’s elegant script may soon be indecipherable to young visitors because schools in Indiana and elsewhere are now allowed to drop cursive writing instruction under new national teaching standards crafted for the digital age.

Leising is convinced it’s a dangerous trend. To preserve penmanship, she has championed a bill to mandate cursive writing courses in all Indiana elementary schools.

“If kids aren’t taught how to write it, they won’t be able to read it,” said Leising. “So, in a sense, we’ll be creating a new kind of illiteracy.”

The use of cursive writing has been fading from society since the arrival of the computer keyboard. Advocates of longhand blame the so-called common core education standards for hastening its demise.  Debate over the issue has pitted teachers against teachers, and a fear by historians we are raising a generation of  handwriting illiterates.  

Rolled out in 2010 by the National Governors Association and adopted by 45 states for implementation by next year, the standards set uniform expectations for what students need to learn to succeed in the technology-centric 21st century.

Those standards include proficiency in computer keyboarding by the fourth grade, but make no mention of the need for cursive writing ability, even though it has been integral to American culture since the nation’s founding.

That lack of  mention has moved schools to abandon resources and courses once devoted to teaching penmanship – much to the dismay of those who say the curriculum change will eventually lead to an inability to comprehend both historic and contemporary handwritten documents, including identifying signatures.

Supporters of the change aren’t concerned.  They say that today’s textbooks and other reading material are widely available in electronic form – on computers, tablets, e-readers and smartphones. As for signatures, they predict scanned eyeballs and fingerprints are destined to replace scribbled names. Hand writing, they insist, is simply no longer worth time-consuming lessons.

Among other trends, they point to a recent poll by Xerox Mortgage Services that  found by 2016 half of all home loans will be closed electronically without an actual signature.

Sandra Wilde, a professor of childhood education at Hunter College in New York and a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, says cursive writing isn’t an essential skill in the digital era.

“A hundred years ago, you needed to have good penmanship to get a good job,” said Wilde. “Today, you need to know how to use technology. Cursive has fallen by the wayside with the realization that kids just don’t need to have good handwriting anymore.”

Wilde teaches courses on literacy and reading. She’s convinced it’s the content of writing that counts, not the tool used to write.  She says the opposition to de-emphasizing penmanship comes from “a pushback against the common core standards.”

Studies show the fading interest in longhand lessons. A National Association of State Boards of Education report released last fall found the average third-grader was getting only 15 minutes of handwriting instruction a day,  down from the standard 30 to 45 minutes a generation ago.

“More time is spent teaching a kid how to kick a soccer ball than how to hold a pen and paper,” said Iris Hatfield, a Louisville, Ky., handwriting coach and creator of a new cursive curriculum popular with homeschoolers. “We’re abandoning one of our most basic and important skills.”

Advocates for cursive writing have taken their fight to the political arena. In addition to Indiana, lawmakers in Idaho and North Carolina have authored legislation that would compel schools to devote time to penmanship.

“Our children can’t write a simple sentence,” said North Carolina State Sen. Pat Hurley, sponsor of  a mandatory cursive writing measure. “They think printing their name is their signature.”

Last year, in adopting the common core standards, boards of education in Alabama, California, and Georgia included a cursive writing requirement for their schools. Massachusetts repealed its cursive requirement but also adopted language that says fourth-graders should be able to “write legibly by hand, using either printing or cursive handwriting.”

In Utah, state officials agreed to study the issue; Kansas educators adopted a policy that encourages, but doesn’t require, schools to teach cursive.

“The debate is national,” said Steve Berlin, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Last September, the association issued a policy statement to provide state schools boards with unbiased research and analysis on the issue.

Titled “The Handwriting Debate,” it acknowledged the impact of digital technology on writing and reading: “(W)ith the proliferation of personal computers in the 1990s and smartphones and tablets in the 21st century, many educators and policymakers have been questioning the usefulness of spending ever-more-valuable class time teaching handwriting to students who have been born into — and will live and work in — a digital world.”

But the policy also acknowledged that “new research has been emerging that points to the educational value of handwriting in ways that go well beyond being able to read cursive or take notes without benefit of a handheld device.”

That research suggests the practice and process of handwriting may improve students’ cognitive and motor skills development, enhance their literacy and help them retain what they’ve learned.

Indiana University neuroscientist Karin Harman James has studied the effect of printing and writing by hand as well as keyboarding in the development of children’s brains, using imaging technology to document how significant changes occur in the brain.  The research led her to believe teaching young children how to write by hand is critical to how they eventually learn to read.

"These kinds of findings point to there being something really important about printing and potentially also about cursive," said James. “They’re both fine motor skills, so they might be equally important in understanding cognitive development in children.”

Supporters of cursive skills argue there’s also a critical handwriting connection to the adult brain.  Since a person’s handwriting becomes distinctive with age, they point out that a person’s penmanship is a symbol of their personality.

Theresa Ortega is a certified handwriting analyst who helped launch Campaign for Cursive, a social media movement that promotes cursive writing in schools. She maintains a person’s penmanship “can tell you a lot.”

Having analyzed hundreds of high school and college students’ handwriting, Ortega says she can see an impact from the fall off in cursive writing instruction. She fears a keyboarding-only generation of students will be more introverted and less able to express themselves creatively.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t use all those digital tools,” Ortega said. “I just think we need the connectivity of cursive writing to equalize the force of technology.”

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana state reporter for CNHI. You can contact her at Maureen.Hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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