For centuries, “reading and writing and ‘rithmetic” have provided indelible ink of academic success.
Yet without much fanfare, cursive writing, long an educational cornerstone, is slipping away from our public schools. Like 44 other states, Ohio no longer requires cursive writing for public schools as part of the state’s Common Core Standards.
Some educators believe it’s a sensible approach in this era of iPads and laptops, while others fear that schoolchildren are losing an important developmental step that hones fine motor skills.
John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said the decision is being left up to individual public school districts, but acknowledged that many districts are moving away from teaching cursive writing. “Most people attribute that to the growth in technology and spending more time on keyboarding skills.”
A Harris interactive poll in July showed that 89% of both adults and children believe it’s necessary to practice reading and writing in cursive. Educators in the trenches remain sharply divided.
“Cursive writing simply isn’t relevant,” observed Jessica Hoffman, assistant professor of teacher education at Miami University. “Why do we need cursive in the real world? Signatures? Even those are going digital.”
But Christine McDermott, a fourth-grade teacher at Holy Angels Catholic Elementary School in Dayton, said she still values cursive writing for a variety of reasons, including fine motor skills, brain development in decoding, and brain sphere crossing. It’s also a valuable life skill that students are learning in addition to their computer labs and keyboard skills.
More than pretty penmanship
At Holy Angels, cursive writing instruction is integrated into the curriculum. Last week, McDermott’s students earnestly listened in religion class and wrote out answers to her questions in longhand.
“It forces the two sides of the brain to cross, and that is really good for brain development,” she explained. “Even more so than printing, because every individual handwriting is different, it teaches the brain to decode images.”
Sheila Lowe, president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, said cursive writing develops more than just pretty penmanship.“Cursive writing is really important for brain development,” said she. “It helps the child to focus and to concentrate.”
She said research has shown that learning cursive brings about measurable increases in reading levels as well as improved behavior and more self-discipline. “Studies have shown that different parts of the brain are lit up by the study of cursive writing,” she said.
Lowe said she has spoken with Ohio Board of Education member Tess Elshoff, who has publicly voiced her concern about the change in state standards. Elshoff, of of New Knoxville, could not be reached for comment, but she recently told the board’s Achievement Committee, “I feel that this is something that should not be dropped.” She added, “I think what we do by not emphasizing the patterns that are made continually with cursive writing, I think we are really doing our children a disservice.”
Hoffman agreed that cursive writing has benefits, but argued that, with limited classroom time, the same benefits could be gleaned from skills that are more practical in today’s world. All of the components of literacy development are highly complex, she said, requiring extensive instruction over long periods of time.
“What does it take to construct meaning in written text?” she said. “You have to be able to generate ideas, organize those ideas, form clear sentences with carefully chosen words, and represent those ideas and words using letters. So you also have to be segment words into sounds, associate those sounds with letters, form or type those letters, and to really write well, you have to be able to do all of this fairly fluently. And that’s just the beginning.”
A tech-savvy world
While she has nothing against cursive writing, Hoffman said, “I wish we had the resources to begin to teach kids at a younger age than high school how to effectively write using technology. I wish I could say that the time we used to spend on handwriting in cursive would now be spent on typing, word processing, and multimedia writing using a variety of technologies.”
Mary-Kate Sableski, a faculty member with the University of Dayton’s teacher education department, sees both positives and negatives in cursive’s decline. It creates a more equal environment, she said, for students with dyslexia who often struggle with handwriting. “It allows all students a more even playing field,” she said. “Studies show that work with poor handwriting automatically is judged lower.”
Handwriting can remain a valuable part of the curriculum, Sableski said, while occupying less classroom time: “Cursive writing does develop fine motor skills, but there are other ways to do that in our tech-savvy world.”
Hoffman said her students at Miami University are baffled by the teaching of cursive; they simply don’t see the need for it. “It’s a generational difference more than anything else,” she said. “It’s true that handwriting is more individual than typing could ever be. But as educators, everything toward building to an end goal, to help our students function as highly literate individuals functioning in the real world. And I don’t see a place where I need cursive writing.”
Others argue that there are elements in education that transcend mere functionality. “Cursive writing is an art form,” said Janet Peterson, Holy Angels School’s librarian. “We don’t want to lose that.”
Lowe, with the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, said cursive writing is part of the nation’s history. “Imagine a world where you can’t read important historical source documents, such as the Constitution or The Declaration of Independence. Imagine when people can’t read birthday cards from grandma,” she said.
Whatever the merits of cursive writing, Sableski predicted, the trend may be irreversible: “Some adults still communicate in cursive, but it is falling to the side.”