Cursive Writing – Is It Obsolete?

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The fundamentals of handwriting are still introduced to children as early as age 3. But the progression of penmanship education — from print to cursive — is being interrupted by technology. As kids get older, typing and texting is favored over the fancy loops and curves their parents were required to learn. And parents are wondering if cursive handwriting is on its way out.

Attitudes and opinions regarding what is considered to be a dying art form vary. Students — especially those in middle and high school — mostly compose schoolwork on computers, text their parents and friends from mobile devices, and e-mail Grandma a thank-you note for holiday gifts and birthday presents. If given a choice, many students would choose learning keyboarding skills rather than the more time-consuming art of cursive.

Some teachers offer up a different viewpoint. A national study published in the January/February 2008 issue of Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal indicated that out of 169 teachers polled, all but four believed both manuscript and cursive handwriting should be taught to students. And, while educators believe cursive handwriting is still an important skill for students to learn, the time they have to teach it can be overshadowed by preparing students for end-of-grade standardized tests.
Here’s a look at how cursive handwriting plays into the different curriculums at Charlotte-area schools.

From Loops to Key Strokes
“We are teaching cursive handwriting at Mt. Island Elementary School,” says principal Jeff Ruppenthal. “The trick is finding opportunities to do it. Teachers do feel it is an important skill for students to have, but with the advent of word processing, it’s not emphasized as much.” He adds that teachers often use blocks of time set aside for literacy skills to incorporate cursive handwriting practice.
As children move out of elementary school and into the upper grades, more and more standardized tests will be administered via computers.

“What I tell parents is that cursive handwriting is on its way out,” says Jackie Pace, executive director for Huntington Learning Centers in South Charlotte and Huntersville. “The third-grade teacher teaches it. The fourth-grade teacher usually has the kids use it. Some fifth-grade teachers require it, but many do not.” She adds, “And by middle school, the teachers are interested in neatness and organization, not whether it is written in cursive.”

Some experts believe a balance can be found between incorporating time to practice cursive handwriting in class assignments and teaching the necessary computer composition skills.
Tina Collop, an occupational therapist at the Community School of Davidson, doesn’t think cursive writing is taking a backburner to computers. “In the majority of schools, cursive is taught in third grade, with practice continuing through fourth and fifth. After it is taught, I think it is generally up to individual teachers as to how frequently it is used in the classroom. Personally, I think that if teachers expected more written assignments to be completed in cursive in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, the kids would have it down pat. What usually seems to happen is that the kids don’t get enough practice, and so it doesn’t become automatic.”

But beyond writing school assignments and thank-you notes to grandparents, parents may be worried that their child won’t learn how to write his or her own signature. Collop validates this concern.

“Think about your own personal response to getting a typewritten versus printed versus cursive thank-you note from an adult. And think about all the legal documents you sign as an adult. The majority require both printed and signed (cursive) signatures,” she says.

At Charlotte Country Day School, cursive handwriting in the Handwriting Without Tears program is included in second-grade curriculum, says Ginna Gosney, director of the lower school educational resource program. In January, when the majority of the school’s second-graders are around 8 years old, cursive handwriting is introduced and children learn the letters of the alphabet.

“Every day there is time devoted to practicing those letters and connections,” says Gosney. The children are required to use cursive handwriting on assignments through third and fourth grade, she explains, but after that, they are allowed to choose whether or not to use manuscript or cursive during the remainder of their school years.

The Benefits of Cursive
As opposed to manuscript, writing in cursive requires left to right sequence, which helps to support reading development, says Collop. She adds that for children who have difficulty with letter reversals, (typical for children in kindergarten and first grade) for letters such as “b” and “d,” the letters are formed completely differently in cursive and make the distinction greater between the two letters.

“It’s not composing on computers that’s affecting cursive, it’s emphasis on other things deemed more important, such as teaching (for) end-of-grade tests, which also begin in the third grade,” says Collop.

Jan Olson, an occupational therapist and creator of the Handwriting Without Tears program, says she believes cursive is coming back into style, but there are a lot of new teachers who never learned how to teach cursive. Regardless, Olson says children should not feel pressured to learn the old-fashioned methods when there is a style available that is vertical, clean and easily learned.

“There’s a myth that cursive has to slant, but it doesn’t have to,” says Olson.

What Next?
If a child is learning cursive handwriting in school, there are a few ways parents can offer support at home.

“Parents need to know what program kids are using, so they can have the practice materials at home and model it the right way,” says Gosney. “The best way to practice is print-to-cursive translation. The parent writes a letter in print and has the child practice it in cursive, and the same goes with practicing writing words.”

As it stands now, cursive handwriting currently is not tested on any of the current standardized tests administered in area schools. There is an essay-writing portion of the SAT, but test-takers can choose to print or write cursive in that section. According to a 2006 report released from the College Board, 15 percent of essays were written in cursive, while the other 85 percent were printed. Interestingly, essays written in cursive received a slightly higher score.

Huntersville resident and former teacher Tamara Holt recognizes cursive handwriting is becoming more obsolete against the backdrop of technology, but as the parent of a young child, she also laments the loss of what used to be considered a work of art.

“I completely support the comprehension and use of technology that’s so readily available to our newest generation, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to wonder what has become of our children’s drive to create the beautiful work of art that is cursive,” says Holt. “In the coming years, as my daughter enters grade school, I would be shocked if cursive handwriting is even included in the curriculum.”