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Does your child need to learn cursive?

Published on: May 01, 2009

girl writingWhen’s the last time you obsessed about your penmanship? Come to think of it, when’s the last time you heard the word “penmanship”?

Chances are, you haven’t stressed out about the state of your handwriting for a very long time. That’s because cursive — as a technique, an art or a way to communicate — is on its way out.

The writing’s on the wall.

The pending demise of slanted script has been a long time coming. Doomsayers predicted its downfall a century ago, when the typewriter made its grand Courier font entrance.

But penmanship prevailed. Could this be because we couldn’t copy, paste or cut with a typewriter? Or because we couldn’t text? Seems quaint now, but once upon a time kids got into trouble for passing notes (notes!) in class. At least they were handwritten.

Sure, kids still learn how to write in that traditional flowing, flowery form. But according to educators in Puget Sound-area school districts, the amount of class time devoted to artfully crossing those t’s is diminishing. “We spend about 45 minutes a week on cursive,” says Janine Knappe, a third-grade teacher at Laurelhurst Elementary School in Seattle. “Compared to when I was a third-grader, this is much less.”
What’s more, few teachers these days ask for essays or reports in cursive, particularly in higher grades, where most students have mastered keyboarding skills.

Washington state’s Grade Level Expectations (GLE) learning requirements ask for “legibility.” That means as long as someone — probably a teacher — can read it, kids can opt to write in either print or cursive.

Seems the GLEs are in sync with today’s elementary teachers. While Issaquah School District instructors care about teaching students to write legibly, they are “much more focused” on teaching higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills, says Sara Niegowski, the district’s director of communications.

The loyalists

Beth DeMuro is still a believer. She considers cursive a life skill. “It can be a reflection of the person,” says DeMuro, who teaches second grade at Bellevue Children’s Academy. “When you write a thank-you note or a hand-written invitation, etiquette will tell you it should be in cursive.”

DeMuro also feels cursive helps kids express themselves. “For some students, the writing process is difficult,” she says. “Often, these kids can’t go from their head to the keyboard. They find cursive to be more fluent.”

Knappe says cursive offers students an important choice. “For kids who have fine motor issues, cursive can be simpler — they don’t have to lift the pencil as often,” she says. “Just like we teach many ways to solve multiplication problems, we need to teach alternative ways to write.”

There are others — perhaps the same folks who bemoaned the loss of the eight-track tape — who seem to resist what appears to be increasingly inevitable.

“There is definitely some push-back,” says Carolyn Treleven, executive director for curriculum and instruction for the Tacoma School District. “I get phone calls several times a year from people bemoaning the loss of the art of cursive.”

Seattle Public Schools is in the process of overhauling its K–12 curriculum. It will tackle the handwriting question — but not until “reading and writing, K–5” pops up on the agenda. That would be in 2013, according to Cathy Thompson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction.

In the meantime, Thompson explains, the district expects students to learn to write clearly. Just what that means is, well, unclear.

“We teach printing,” says Thompson. “It’s required.” Instructing students in cursive is not required, but most teachers opt to teach it anyway, she says. What style do they teach? Pretty much any style they want. “It’s a teacher-by-teacher or school-by-school decision,” Thompson says.

The realists

Purists point to the thank-you note as cursive’s raison d’être. But in today’s Twitter-and-text culture, most of us are thrilled to open our mailbox and find something — anything — handwritten in it, be it printed, in cursive or scrawled in crayon.

Treleven captures this sentiment well. “My 90-year-old mother really wouldn’t care whether my kids write their thank-you notes in cursive,” she says.

The cursive form, she says, is just less relevant today. “We’ve moved to a style of communication that’s geared toward a technology base. The emphasis is on clarity, not beauty.” Substance trumps style, says Treleven. “It isn’t about whether the h’s go to half-mark on the line.”

That could be why “Handwriting Without Tears” has become the country’s cool cursive curriculum. Noticeably missing curlicues and frills, it teaches a clean, vertical style that looks a lot like print. Once you see it, it’s hard not to wonder what all the fuss about slanted script was about.

Janine Knappe teaches “Con­temporary Cursive” in her third-grade class, a handwriting curriculum that’s also streamlined, squiggle-free and painless to learn.
But Knappe doesn’t anticipate old-fashioned penmanship going the way of the fountain pen anytime soon. “Some children have a harder time printing,” she says. “The days of cursive are not over yet.”

Linda Morgan, ParentMap associate editor, discusses education issues on KING-TV’s regular feature “Parent to Parent.”

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