August 8, 2011

Cursive writing fading from focus in schools

When Laurie Curtis asks her college students to write — with pen or pencil on paper, not computer keyboard and printer — she's sometimes shocked by the result.

When Laurie Curtis asks her college students to write — with pen or pencil on paper, not computer keyboard and printer — she's sometimes shocked by the result.

"They're out of practice," says Curtis, who instructs prospective preschool and elementary teachers at Kansas State University's College of Education.

"The letters slant across the page, or the writing is not legible.... It's clear that handwriting is not a priority the way it used to be."

Curtis and other proponents of handwriting, particularly cursive writing, say there still is value in teaching the craft. But they worry it's in danger of being permanently erased.

The Common Core Standards for English, adopted by the State Board of Education last fall, do not include cursive writing as a requirement. For well over a decade, penmanship lessons, where children practice the flowing curves and fancy loops of cursive writing, have been disappearing from classrooms in Wichita and surrounding districts.

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

The Andover school district east of Wichita teaches traditional block-letter print through second grade and cursive in grades three through five, said Andy Koenigs, associate superintendent for Andover schools.

"We don't think Common Core (Standards) will change this as much as technology might make us consider changes," he said.

Less focus on handwriting

Indeed, today's students type, text and e-mail more frequently than they write anything longhand. Most state assessments, required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, are computerized.

Even Catholic schools, long known for their emphasis on spelling and penmanship, are not focusing on handwriting as much as they once did.

"It's changing," said Bob Voboril, superintendent of the diocese schools. "By fourth grade there's much more of an emphasis on keyboarding, and that starts to take away from penmanship class.

"Parents want to know what your school is doing to teach kids to be prepared for the world of technology," he said. "That's a higher priority for parents than what we would call the penmanship arts."

Curtis, the K-State education professor, said that although handwriting isn't as much of a life skill as it was 20 years ago, children should still have opportunities to learn and practice.

Handwriting helps young children develop fine motor skills, she said. In addition, writing letters by hand, over and over again, helps students remember the names and sounds of letters, which makes them better readers.

Officials at the Fundamental Learning Center, a local nonprofit that helps struggling readers, say cursive writing is an integral part of their program. They teach cursive exclusively, even to kindergartners, because they say its flowing, rhythmical movement and joined letters help students better visualize the way letters form words.

"It's a huge factor in their success," said Cam Jantz, a former classroom teacher who teaches Alphabetic Phonics at the center.

Cursive writing "makes so much more of a connection with their brain," she said. Unlike manuscript, cursive letters have unique shapes that are not mirror images of other letters, so children have less chance of confusing b's with d's or p's with q's.

More emphasis on math, reading

More than anything else, educators say, the shift away from traditional penmanship instruction is the result of increased emphasis on core subjects such as reading and math.

"That is a major issue, because we have so much more of a focus on... math and reading, and more time spent on those," said Seguine, the Wichita administrator. "If you add (handwriting) you have to take something away, and the question is: What is taken away?"

State writing assessments, required under the federal No Child Left Behind law in fifth, eighth and 11th grades, judge students' work based on six overall traits: ideas and content, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, organization and conventions.

That last one includes punctuation, grammar and spelling — all the elements that make writing easy to read, said Kathy Toelkes, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. Handwriting and legibility could be factors in that score but are not assessed specifically, she said.

"Handwriting is a motor skill. It's not a key content area," Toelkes said. "This is why it hasn't been included in the state standards."

If a writing test was "so bad as to be not legible at all, that test would just not be scored," she said.

Voboril, the Catholic schools superintendent, said he hopes students continue to write legibly, if not artfully, because "that's part of communicating with the people around you.

"The purpose of a school is to form a disciplined person. Things like handwriting, spelling, memorizing the linking verbs or the state capitals — that helps you down the road when you have to do higher-level thinking."

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