Colorado schools are beginning to write off cursive
posted by: Guest Blogger
Twenty-three second-graders file into Virginia Edwards’ technology classroom at Grant Ranch School, take a seat at their iMacs, pull on headphones and launch a program whose graphics and audio prompts teach them crucial keyboarding skills.
Gradually, the staccato tapping of their fingers will supplant the graceful curves of what once stood as an academic rite of passage: cursive handwriting.
In an increasingly paperless world, and with ever-greater student-performance demands in core subjects, state standards have gone silent on cursive.
In Colorado schools where it is still taught, the time devoted to its practice generally has diminished, although pockets of avid supporters still enthusiastically defend its rightful place in the elementary curriculum.
At Grant Ranch, a K-8 school in southwest Denver, teachers have wide latitude to address cursive as they see fit — and their approaches reflect the growing institutional ambivalence with regard to the flowing script.
“My 5-year-old granddaughter is interested in it,” says Edwards, a technology teacher who taught kindergarten for 12 years. “But to have her have to use it, to make it required, I can’t see that — because keyboarding is so much faster.”
Generally, students here are introduced to cursive in the middle of third grade, when teacher Jennifer Wilson welcomes kids mostly eager to embrace its fluid form.
She wants to make sure they can read cursive — something she figures could have social or job ramifications. And she has noticed that some students write more legibly in cursive than manuscript, which can help their scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program exams, among other things.
Even so, she spends no more than five to seven minutes on form at the start of the day, with take-home exercises for practice.
“Cursive’s not dying,” Watson observes, “but there’s a lot less of it.”
By fifth grade, the emphasis diminishes.
Handwriting on the wall?
Until this year, teacher Sue Workman subscribed to the idea that cursive’s efficiency provided a key skill for note-taking in high school and college. Then her student teacher explained how she navigated college entirely without handwritten notes.
On top of that, one of her son’s high school teachers remarked that he wrote in beautiful cursive — in fact, he was the only student who did.
Those were her tipping points.
“If they’re not using it when they’re older, why are we demanding it now?” Workman says. “The kids don’t like to write cursive, and it’s always an argument every year. I decided it’s a battle I don’t want to fight anymore. Now, I’m starting to think it really is becoming obsolete.”
Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who has studied writing instruction extensively, doesn’t see the handwritten word disappearing from schools anytime soon.
Studies have repeatedly shown that word processors produce better overall writing than anything performed by hand, Graham says, and computers tend to dominate at home and in the workplace.
But most schools don’t have nearly enough technology to serve every student.
His own research has shown that, despite the “gloom and doom” surrounding handwriting, more than 80 percent of first- and third-grade teachers say they teach manuscript and about 80 percent of third-grade teachers still teach cursive. But instruction “pretty much disappears” after that.
Handwriting, Graham points out, also carries two significant effects — a “writer effect” and a “reader effect.”
The first refers to the difficulty of writing fast enough to keep pace with one’s thoughts.
But the “reader effect” has two aspects. While terrible handwriting can obscure the message, the quality of legible handwriting has been shown to have a more “insidious” effect on how ideas are perceived.
In compositions scored solely on the quality of the ideas, poor but legible handwriting can drop scores as low as the 16th percentile while a very legible hand can propel the same concepts to the 86th percentile, Graham says.
Word processing eliminates the reader effect because of its uniform legibility, he says. And eventually, many paper documents such as job applications that require handwritten responses will disappear.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Graham says. “We’re not at that point. I think handwriting is important because schools don’t use 21st-century tools. I don’t see it going away, or every kid having a computer for a while, with few exceptions. Until that’s the case, it’ll stay in play.”
Classroom priorities shift
Denver Public Schools chief academic officer Susana Cordova doesn’t think anybody is actively opposing cursive writing. But like most districts, DPS wants to devote the most classroom time to what’s most heavily emphasized in state standards.
Once kids have learned to print in first grade, she says, the standards move away from letter formation and focus on aspects of writing such as organization, message and grammar.
While how much time to devote to cursive instruction is left to individual schools and sometimes to individual teachers, DPS aims to make students fluent in keyboarding by sixth grade. That’s the form most of their middle and high school assignments will take, and even standardized assessments are moving toward a computer-based model.
“In many respects, it’s only inside our schools where we see such emphasis on paper and pencil,” Cordova says. “The move outside our schools, and in innovative schools, is toward technology. There will always be a role for the written word by hand on paper. But the experiences most of us have, with 30 minutes a day practicing cursive in class, has gone by the wayside.”
Well, not entirely.
Nowhere is the case for cursive stated more emphatically — and more passionately — than at James Irwin Charter Elementary School, a K-5 on the south end of Colorado Springs.
Officially, Cindee Will holds the title of assistant principal. Unofficially, she’s the ardent keeper of cursive’s flickering flame.
She cites both developmental and cultural reasons to embrace cursive.
Ball-and-stick printing sometimes reveals what she calls “tangles in the brain” — not necessarily dyslexia, but a more common issue manifested, for instance, by confusing the letters b and d. Will contends that cursive, in which the pencil generally doesn’t leave the paper until the end of a word, can combine with a phonics program to reinforce a left-to-right directionality that more effectively ties writing to reading.
“When kids get to third and fourth grade, when they’re supposed to be composing, they can use more brain space for content than mechanics,” she says.
Will acknowledges the importance of technology but maintains that sometimes cursive offers the most effective way to communicate — for instance, on a job application that asks you to put your thoughts into writing.
“I do believe one of the best forms to reflect literacy is with a beautiful hand,” Will says. “How is a stranger going to know what’s in your brain if it’s not revealed on paper?”
Examples of student work papers the hallways at James Irwin, all exhibiting an even, flowing style. They do not teach ball and stick here. Starting in kindergarten, cursive is not just the script of choice but a culture unto itself.
When it’s time for a 20-minute lesson, students systematically prepare at their teacher’s prompt by checking their posture, the angle of their paper on the desk and the proper pencil grip.
From there, it’s part close-order drill, part pep rally. The rhythmic clapping of the classroom aide accompanies the sing-song chants that direct the students to properly form a letter.
When the teacher’s example, projected onto a screen, dips below the bottom line, she asks what’s wrong.
“No sinkers allowed!” barks the class.
She tries again, with the lower part of the letter coming up short of the bottom line.
“No floaters allowed!”
Then the students attend to their own practice lines. Feedback is immediate, in the form of little stars or corrective marks written on their exercises by the teacher and an aide who roam among the desks.
After a few minutes of serious attention to their handwriting, they get to have a little fun working out their wiggles.
“Shake to the left, shake-shake- shake! Shake to the right, shake- shake-shake! Stand up, sit down, write-write-write!”
Will, a former kindergarten teacher, figures she has taught nearly 1,000 students the “cursive first” approach. She laments how cursive has become a lost art and, in many schools, a casualty along with art and music.
“Think of how the Declaration of Independence would look if our forefathers hadn’t been brought to a high level of fluency,” she says. “Would that be as beautiful on a computer, or with ball and stick?”
Sticking to the old school
For a variety of reasons, some private schools also have remained solidly behind cursive instruction.
In the Archdiocese of Denver, curriculum guidelines for Catholic schools say that cursive will be taught in late second and early third grade. They also emphasize the importance of practice in later grades to continue developing the skill, says associate superintendent Sister Elizabeth Youngs.
“When we were first using computers, people said we don’t need to memorize math facts,” she says. “There’s a certain time in brain development that you need to learn that skill. I believe cursive writing develops part of the brain as well. You may keyboard exclusively, but that doesn’t mitigate the needed skill of cursive writing.”
She highlights two reasons: It fosters hand-eye coordination that develops the brain; and learning to write cursive means learning to read it as well.
At the Denver Montclair International School, some students learn to write in cursive as early as kindergarten — in accordance with standard French and Spanish curricula.
Part of the reason lies in fine motor skill development, says executive director Adam Sexton, but there’s also the matter of spacing.
“By having single words connected and then having space in between, the (cursive) philosophy is helping them distinguish individual words,” Sexton says. “I don’t know why schools are discontinuing it.”
The portion of the curriculum that students learn in English deals primarily with block printing that complements the cursive students learn in French and Spanish — but teachers don’t discourage students more comfortable in cursive from employing it in their English studies.
(Students immersed in Chinese also learn calligraphy, but it’s “more art than script,” Sexton says.)
By fifth grade, when the curriculum is split evenly between English and the target language, students have the option of using either cursive or printing.
“The manual writing takes on part of the culture, in my mind,” says Francois Penalver, the school’s academic director. “Plus, we do not forget that they have to use computers — starting in fourth grade, they have typing lessons. There’s a space for everything.”
At Stover Elementary in Jefferson County, principal Andrew Zapotoczny notes that a few years ago, when Jefferson County Public Schools revised its curriculum and prioritized various elements, cursive came out low on the scale: If you have time, teach it.
“With the way the world is changing these days, with all the skills people need, it’s a matter of finding priorities,” he says.
When parent Pam Bates learned that cursive was no longer being taught at Stover, she resolved to do something — not just for her own third-grade daughter who’d been looking forward to the experience, but for all students.
Last fall, the after-school Cursive Club was born and immediately attracted 40 students. With the help of parent volunteers and with the principal’s encouragement, Bates lashed together her own lesson plans that included six weeks of 45-minute sessions.
This spring, she’ll teach her second group.
“I absolutely get that we’re moving in a world that’s technology-based,” Bates says. “But I’m of the old school that believes you can’t forget where you came from to get where you’re going. There could be a day the computer crashes.”