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State Board of Education will debate role of cursive handwriting on curriculums

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, at 12:54 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, at 11:51 a.m.

Should children born into a world of computers, iPads, smartphones and e-cards have to learn old-fashioned cursive handwriting?

The State Board of Education will explore the topic Tuesday during its regular monthly meeting in Topeka.

Walt Chappell, a state board member from Wichita, said he requested information from Kansas Department of Education officials on the teaching of cursive handwriting because he wants to know how or even whether it’s still taught in Kansas schools.

Chappell believes it should be.

“Absolutely, no question,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to communicate with each other in written form. … Technology is great, but it doesn’t always work. There are all kinds of situations where you have to know how to write longhand.”

The Common Core Standards for English, adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010, do not include cursive writing as a requirement. But even before that, the state did not set standards for handwriting or require that it be taught in Kansas classrooms.

“It’s a motor skill like any number of other motor skills,” said Kathy Toelkes, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Education.

“Curriculum has always been a local board decision,” she said. “We set standards and guidelines for what students should know and be able to do … but cursive handwriting and handwriting in general has not been a part of that.”

Toelkes said state officials sent a survey to school districts asking them to describe the extent to which cursive is being taught in their schools. Results of the survey were not available Friday, she said, but will be presented to state board members at Tuesday’s meeting.

The Eagle reported last year that penmanship lessons, where children practice the flowing curves and fancy loops of cursive writing, have gradually been disappearing from Wichita classrooms.

“The emphasis is on communication … rather than the ability to form letters a certain way,” said Denise Seguine, chief academic officer for Wichita schools.

Leaders at several suburban districts and Bob Voboril, superintendent of schools for the Wichita Catholic Diocese, said they don’t focus on handwriting as much as they once did.

“Parents want to know what your school is doing to teach kids to be prepared for the world of technology,” Voboril told The Eagle last fall. “That’s a higher priority for parents than what we would call the penmanship arts.”

Today’s children type, text and e-mail more frequently than they write longhand. And for most Wichita-area students, state assessments — required under the federal No Child Left Behind law — are computerized.

Kansas officials so far have taken no position on handwriting — cursive or otherwise — in schools. But leaders in some other states have sparked intense reactions by dropping requirements for learning cursive.

In Indiana last year, the state Department of Education caused a stir when it sent a memo to principals noting that the Common Core Standards “do not include cursive writing at all.”

“Instead, students are expected to become proficient with keyboarding skills,” the memo said.

Reaction was fierce, particularly from those who believe writing letters by hand, over and over again, helps students remember the names and sounds of letters and makes them better readers.

A growing body of research from the past decade also points to a link between handwriting and brain development, showing that sequential hand movements used in handwriting activate the regions of the brain associated with thinking, short-term memory and language.

Sharon Iorio, dean of Wichita State University’s College of Education, said her faculty believes cursive will still be taught in schools, but the emphasis has waned.

“Cursive writing would likely fall under the rubric of ‘rote’ learning, which is not emphasized in the Common Core,” Iorio said in an e-mail. “Yet, obviously there is a place in education for rote learning.”

For example, Iorio said, most teachers and parents agree that it’s good for students learn and practice certain basic, rote math skills, such as learning to count to 100 by the end of kindergarten or first grade.

“While learning to write in cursive is still an important element of elementary education, the emphasis on it is no longer as important as in the past,” she said.

Chappell, the Kansas board member, said he’s not sure what, if anything, the state board can do to ensure children learn cursive and other basic skills. But he hopes they do.

“My opinion is, we need all of the above: We need to be able to work with technology, but we have to make sure kids can still write and communicate. Why give up on it?”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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