Michelle Farag gets her fifth-graders up and moving by playing a tune – this time it’s “Everything Is Awesome” – over the speakers.
When the music stops, the students stop. They find a partner and grab their dry-erase boards.
“OK, I want you to write this in cursive,” Farag says, and she writes a word in manuscript letters at the front of the class:
“Oh!” says Herbert Smith. “I love this one.”
He drags his marker across his board to form the letters: An undercurve stroke starts the lower-case “s,” then a slanting “l,” two loopy “e’s,” and a final, flourishing “p.” Herbert pauses to admire it before showing his partner, Trinity Hopper.
Yes, she nods. That looks right.
Trinity loves this kind of handwriting, too, she says. “It’s like we’re writing in medieval times.”
Farag’s students are bringing cursive back. The fifth-grade class at Enders Open Magnet Elementary in south Wichita is one of two classes in the district trying out an old-school handwriting curriculum, Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, to see how explicit cursive writing instruction might fit into today’s modern classrooms.
About a year ago, the Kansas State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve new standards for handwriting, including a requirement that all students write legibly in cursive and be able to read material written in cursive.
Prior to that, cursive writing hadn’t been part of the Wichita district curriculum for years. It was dropped because of an increased use of technology – including on state tests, which are administered by computer – and a greater focus on writing process and content.
Some teachers continued to teach handwriting, says Tanya Mitchell, literacy curriculum coach for Wichita schools. But the state board’s renewed focus prompted district officials to consider how to broaden handwriting instruction and make it more consistent across the district.
“Going to college, kids need to be able to read this,” Mitchell said of cursive, a style of writing where letters are joined together in flowing strokes.
“Their professors will write in cursive on the board, and we’ve heard from colleges that our kids are leaving (high school) and sometimes they can’t read what the professors are writing. … They at least need to be exposed to it.”
Kansas is one of only a handful of states that still calls for instruction in handwriting. In most other parts of the country, penmanship lessons have fallen by the wayside as states adopted Common Core standards for reading and math, which put more emphasis on technology and make almost no mention of handwriting.
Even so, Kansas’ handwriting standards are considered only “model” standards. Districts are not required to implement them, and the state does not administer yearly tests to evaluate handwriting the way it does for other subjects such as math, reading, science and social studies.
Fitting it in
Farag, the Enders teacher, said she thinks it’s important for children to learn to read and write cursive.
“Their signature’s going to be in cursive. All of our historical documents are in cursive … and letters from grandparents,” she said. “If you don’t know how to write it, you can’t read it. So I do think it’s important.”
Most students seem excited to learn it, Farag said. She taught third grade last year when she started the pilot project. When she told her students they were going to learn cursive, “They all cheered,” she said.
“They were so excited because I think it feels almost adult to them, in a way. They love it.”
Fitting handwriting lessons into the school day, though, amid all the other demands on teachers’ time, has been tough. Her fifth-graders get 10 to 15 minutes of instruction two to three times a week, she said.
Meanwhile, keyboarding skills are more important than ever, so they have to practice that as well. Because state writing tests are administered by computer, Farag says, she wants to make sure her students don’t lose their best writing ideas as they struggle to find the right keys and type quickly.
“Not everything can be equal,” Farag said. “Keyboarding’s important, cursive is important, print is important, reading and writing and math. At some point, something has to drop down (in priority). I don’t know how you make that call, though.”
Teachers need a refresher
The new state handwriting standards call for cursive instruction to begin in third grade. By fourth grade, students should “produce words, sentences, paragraphs and numbers with proper proportion and spacing on standard lined paper using cursive writing.”
In fifth grade, students should “maintain legible cursive writing,” according to the standards. And from sixth grade onward, students can “use an adaptive but legible manuscript-cursive hybrid when appropriate.”
That hybrid form of handwriting – a mix of manuscript and cursive letters, usually lacking the loop-de-loop style and consistent slant of cursive writing – is what most older children and adults use in daily life, said Mitchell, the literacy coach.
Farag said she needed a refresher course on cursive and spent time at home practicing her upper- and lower-case letters in the Zaner-Bloser workbook before she could start teaching her students. She didn’t remember that a lower-case cursive “y,” for example, starts at the baseline and curves up at the start.
One afternoon last week, Farag’s students practiced their cursive y’s, first tracing and then writing the letter over and over again in their workbooks. They joined “y” with other letters – “ym,” “yo,” “ye,” “ty” and “oy” – and then wrote some practice words: yellow, your, city and buy.
Visualizing letters, words
Proponents of cursive writing instruction say that although handwriting isn’t as much of a life skill as it was 20 or 30 years ago, students still need opportunities to learn and practice.
Handwriting helps young children develop fine motor skills, they say. Writing letters by hand helps students remember the names and sounds of letters, which makes them better readers. And the flowing, rhythmical movement and joined letters of cursive, in particular, may help children better visualize the way letters form words.
Farag walked around the room, marking students’ best work with a thumbs-up stamp. The fifth-graders finished the lesson by writing simple phrases in cursive: “take a bath,” “get dressed,” “pick apples” and “make a pie.”
Roman Ramirez said he first learned cursive in third grade and used it a little in fourth. But he doesn’t use it much anymore.
“It’s nice,” Roman said. “Nice reading, nice writing.”
Classmate Oscar Sanchez said he likes cursive and is good at it – Farag often praises the consistent shape, spacing, size and slant of his letters – but he doesn’t see much of a point.
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “I guess it’s OK.”
District officials plan to evaluate how the cursive lessons are working in Farag’s room and another one that is using the Zaner-Bloser workbooks – a third-grade class at Spaght Elementary, near 10th and Grove.
“We will make a decision as far as if this is what we want to adopt, and what we might be able to do in terms of budget,” Mitchell said.
Handwriting textbooks and workbooks aren’t cheap, she said. Another option might be for the district to create and produce its own cursive workbooks at the district’s print shop. Then they’ll have to decide when and how often teachers should schedule handwriting instruction.
“There are different types of cursive and all sorts of books, so we’re looking at all that,” Mitchell said. “We plan to follow those (state) standards and have something in place.”