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Why some schools still insist on lessons in elegant cursive

May 6, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Starting in the 1970s, and under the recent implementation of the Common Core, a former pillar of elementary education has been largely forgotten. But there’s a feeling that learning cursive still has value, even in the age of typing and texting. The NewsHour's April Brown reports from North Carolina, one of a handful of states that's moved to make learning the formal, curlicue letters mandatory.
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PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happena public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

GWEN IFILL: The writing may be on the wall for something that used to be standard fare in our elementary schools. It turns out that the elegant script of cursive handwriting is barely being taught anymore.

The NewsHour’s April Brown reports as part of our American Graduate project, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: For centuries, cursive was a pillar of elementary education and a crucial tool for recording and preserving history. But the slow, yet steady decline of this handwriting technique can be traced to the 1970s.

Since then, school budgets have gotten smaller and more emphasis has been placed on both standardized testing and technology in the classroom. In 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia began implementing what is known as the Common Core English language arts standards, a set of K-12 benchmarks that made no mention of cursive whatsoever.

STEVE GRAHAM, Education Professor, Arizona State University: Cursive is the odd man out. It has been left out of the mix.

APRIL BROWN: Steve Graham is a professor of education at Arizona State University. He says Common Core calls for handwriting to be taught in kindergarten and first grade only, meaning that, going forward, many students will learn manuscript, also known as printing, but never get to cursive.

STEVE GRAHAM: Kids are taught how to write in cursive in most schools now in the U.S. right now at second and third grade. With Common Core state standards, that is going to change.

APRIL BROWN: The role of cursive in our nation’s history has often been cited as one reason to keep it. Many founding documents were written in ink with curly-Q letters spelling out the birth of a nation.

KITTY NICHOLSON, National Archives: This is a physical link right back to 1776.

APRIL BROWN: Kitty Nicholson recently retired as a conservator at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. She devoted much of her career to preserving the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Nicholson says she’s saddened to see the demise of cursive.

KITTY NICHOLSON: If you have seen elegant writing from the 18th century, elegant writing of many of the great, significant documents in the National Archives, other places, to lose that elegance, that sense of elegance, is — it feels like losing a bit of civilization.

WOMAN: Keep it going, and then go into your E.

APRIL BROWN: And there are also worries that if students never learn to write in cursive, they will be unable to read those historical documents as well.

But Steve Graham chalks that up to nostalgia.

STEVE GRAHAM: The worry about not being able to read historical doctors in cursive, it’s a romantic idea. It’s great to be able to do that, but is it really essential? It’s probably not.

APRIL BROWN: Still, lawmakers in several states have gone to great lengths to keep cursive in the classroom. Of the 45 states using the Common Core’s English language arts standards, at least eight have recently moved to make cursive instruction mandatory, despite the fact it’s not required in Common Core.

North Carolina is one of them. Candie Sellers is in charge of elementary and secondary curriculum development for schools in Buncombe County, North Carolina. She oversaw a committee of principals, teachers, and school psychologists who studied research on the benefits of cursive in student development.

CANDIE SELLERS, Buncombe County Schools: We had lots of discussions about the importance of developing those fine motor skills and those cognitive skills and looked at that research. And that played an important role into using it in our schools.

APRIL BROWN: Jacob Fender’s second grade class at Estes Elementary in suburban Asheville has just started their cursive lessons.

JACOB FENDER: I’m pretty much learning all the letters in cursive right now in second grade.

APRIL BROWN: Cursive writing instruction has changed here in Buncombe County over the years. Students no longer write sentence after sentence. Instead, it’s integrated into the curriculum.

CINDY HUTCHINS, Second-Grade Teacher, Estes Elementary School: And swing up. So that’s our A letter.

APRIL BROWN: Second grade teacher Cindy Hutchins says there simply wouldn’t be enough time in the school day to teach cursive the old-fashioned way. So she often includes cursive instruction into writing lessons.

CINDY HUTCHINS: Yes, it’s definitely a challenge, because you want your instruction to be rigorous. And you also want to make sure that you’re hitting not only your grade level standards, but that some of the standards may be too easy or too hard for students. You’re differentiating on the spot a lot of times.

APRIL BROWN: In kindergarten and first grade, students here prepare for the cursive they will eventually learn by practicing the D’Nealian alphabet, a form of handwriting that features slanted letters and is supposed to ease the transition.

Even so, learning cursive hasn’t been easy for everyone, including third grader Jeremy Ramos.

JEREMY RAMOS: It’s been kind of hard at first, but I got used to it, because we have these like little booklets that like help us practice.

APRIL BROWN: Jeremy and other students at Estes do practice writing with digital tools, like computers and tablets, working on skills the Common Core the districts consider important.

And even as technology becomes more pervasive, some educators believe cursive can be useful to students tackling the more rigorous work called for in Common Core.

MARILYN ZECHER, Academic Language Therapist: Cursive handwriting would absolutely support all of our objectives in the Common Core.

APRIL BROWN: Marilyn Zecher: a former teacher and certified academic language therapist in suburban Washington, D.C., frequently uses cursive in her work with students who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. She says cursive can help students and learn and understand words and offers other benefits as well.

MARILYN ZECHER: That’s where the research supports the cursive handwriting. If we’re asking children to think about what they’re reading, if we’re asking to really assimilate the content and make notes and remember it, cursive handwriting really supports that enormously.

WOMAN: Then we’re going down, up, over and off.

APRIL BROWN: And even in the age of typing and texting, there is a feeling here that learning cursive now will still have value.

SAMMI HASCHER: You don’t always have your device wherever you go.

JACOB FENDER: Maybe, like, we have any like electricity anymore, and it might be a blackout, so we would have to write letters to each other.

APRIL BROWN: But, hopefully, that won’t be the future reason they are using the cursive they’re practicing today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can learn more about how practicing cursive can help students with dyslexia. That’s on our Education page.