As we write less and tap more, the results are not necessarily what we expect.
By Kim J. Gifford
The name “John Hancock” and his distinctly large script on The Declaration of Independence have become synonymous with the word “signature.” But, according to some educators who are proponents of cursive writing, if Hancock were a child growing up today, he might not be able to write his own name in cursive — let alone read it.
Indeed, the dominance of technology in schools has led to a decline in cursive writing. But is it truly a dying art? Conversations with educators around the Upper Valley suggest that cursive handwriting is far from doomed; in fact, most schools teach cursive handwriting through the 5th grade.
The Teachers’ View
“We are teaching it,” says Bill Hammond, principal of the Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt. “It is not as prominent a subject as it used to be, but we are still teaching it…. It is not just about being able to write in cursive, it’s about connecting letters and recognizing connections between letters — using these letters to get a sense of words.”
Even in 6th grade, students at Marion Cross School are required to keep handwritten journals, says Hammond. “I think part of the compromise is we don’t teach cursive handwriting in as much detail as we did 30 years ago.”
Jonathan Fenton, a 5th grade teacher, believes that the death sentence pronounced on cursive writing comes, in part, from the fact that a majority of people “have just assumed — without much pause, reflection or quality research — that it’s an obsolete skill.”
Lisa Floyd, an 8th grade English teacher in Randolph, Vt., and vice chair of the Bethel School Board, explains that schools today have 6½ hours “to teach everything from adaptability [and] respect for yourself and others as well as math, science, music, English, world languages and art.” It’s no wonder cursive isn’t taught anymore!
Floyd acknowledges that students “will spend dramatically more time typing than they will writing,” but still sees a benefit in teaching cursive writing — primarily for the ability to decode handwritten letters and read historical documents. Unfortunately, she notes, a growing number of students cannot read her handwriting when she provides feedback in cursive.
Does It Really Matter?
Why all the fuss when kids today have access to all sorts of writing implements from tablets to laptop computers? Martha Langill, principal at Lebanon Middle School in Lebanon, N.H., advocates for cursive because “it is a more efficient way of writing.”
Others, like Andra Mills, a professionally certified educational and dyslexia therapist, believe that in addition to keyboarding, it is imperative to teach students to write in cursive for a myriad of reasons.
MRI studies reveal that the act of cursive handwriting “actually activates massive areas in the brain involved in thinking, word rendering and language. Cursive handwriting has been proven to help students who have difficulty reading and spelling because, when you write in cursive, an entire word becomes a unit and the letters are not separate entities,” says Mills.
Fenton believes that recent MRI research may have instituted “a budding awareness and appreciation” for handwriting. He cites his daughter’s high school English and humanities teachers, who are now requiring handwriting annotations and the use of handwritten Post-It™ notes in response to this research. On his part, Fenton has his 5th graders compose poetry by hand and uses spelling and vocabulary tests and instruction as an opportunity to practice cursive while anything longer, like essays, are done on the computer.
Mary Fettig, educational support coordinator at Upper Valley Waldorf School in Quechee, Vt., feels handwriting “is one aspect of how we integrate movement and thinking. Learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development as it activates both sides of the brain and strengthens hand-eye coordination.”
Mary Blake, an occupational therapist, wholeheartedly agrees. She feels that a lot of children today lack the foundation skills that kids had 20 years ago, “such as picking up a pencil and knowing where to put their fingers.”
Blake feels that handwriting uses muscles in the hands in the way they were intended, allowing each finger to touch the tip of the thumb and utilize tools such as a pencil, scissors, knife, and fork. She has visited less technologically advanced countries and noticed that children there are better able to pick up and hold pencils in a way that American children cannot.
In fact, Derek Tremblay, headmaster at Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, N.H., notes one of the differences between his established students and new kids coming from other schools is the strength of their grip.
As they progress through school, the requirement to write in cursive can produce anxiety for some students. Harvie Porter, a SAT supervisor at Randolph Union High School, in Randolph, Vt., notes that, historically, students were instructed to write the certification statement on the SAT in cursive. In recent years, this caused anxiety for test takers who could not write in cursive. And now, the College Boards no longer require students to write this statement in cursive.
At the same time, administrators at many post-secondary institutions find it challenging to read the handwriting of recent high school graduates. Office staff members at a local technical college bemoan the poor legibility of students’ signatures. An administrator at a local private elementary school complains about the ability to decipher the signatures of college interns.
Take It Home
Writing tutor Jane Friedlander of Thetford Center, Vt., says there is an alternative to incorporating cursive into teachers’ busy workload: setting aside small amounts of time at home for children to practice cursive.
Some parents even seek outside instruction for their children. Area teacher and artist Maryann Davis confirms that she was been hired by one parent to teach cursive to her son as an art form. “She came to me concerned because she saw the research that validates that cursive writing should be taught,” Davis says.
Upper Valley homeschool mom Meg Pillsbury demonstrates how attitudes toward cursive have changed over the years. Pillsbury, who has taught all seven of her children at home, admits to “diligently” teaching her first four children to write in script. By the fifth, she was “less diligent.” The last one now writes in script for three minutes a day.”
Self-Expression Is the Bottom Line
Blake cautions that there is a need to step away from the computer in order to gain perspective. Tremblay agrees, “Our culture right now is all about expression — even if it means adversely affecting someone else.” In his opinion, cursive allows students to slow down and think before saying something that might be hurtful. He adds that early exposure to technology at home might suggest that children do not need immediate computer instruction at school. “My 2-year-old boy can navigate an Amazon Kindle just fine,” he says.
Yet, keyboarding is obviously also essential. Eloise Ginty, principal of Mount Lebanon School in West Lebanon, argues, “I don’t think cursive is the end all in terms of developing fine motor control. There are all kinds of other ways we can get kids involved with that, and I would hope this would happen before 3rd and 5th grade — which is when cursive kicks in.”
Ginty feels that technology offers children new forms of expression. “Kindergarteners can now get thoughts out on paper with dictation or drawings or by creating digitally, which I really believe is the definition of writing, getting their thoughts on paper,” she says.
Kim J. Gifford is a writer, photographer/artist, avid dog lover and blogger. Her Bethel, Vt., home is always filled with nieces and nephews and her three pugs: Alfie, Waffles and Amore. Find her at pugsandpics.com