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Wednesday, 12 September 2012 00:00

As schools rapidly phase out cursive, its certain demise is met with mixed opinions

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fr cursiveGone are the days of students hunched over wide-ruled paper, forming endless strings of perfectly manicured cursive letters, painstakingly matching the dimensions of each loop of an L or swoop of G’s tail.

Cursive, at least the way your parents learned it, is on the way out.

“It is an emotional issue for a lot of us, but practically speaking, people who learned how to cursive write really, really well in second or third grade just don’t use it after that,” said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of Haywood County Schools. “Why would we drill somebody in something they would be very unlikely to use?”

Cursive is markedly absent from the new curriculum adopted by North Carolina last year — as well as 46 other states — known as the common core curriculum. Schools can still teach cursive if they want to, but it’s considered optional.

While Haywood County has phased out intensive cursive instruction for third-graders, teachers will still expose their students to cursive in some form rather than kicking it to the curb entirely, Nolte said.

“We still teach it so people can sign checks or write notes, but it is not something we spend an exorbitant amount of time on,” Nolte said.

Jackson County Schools likewise no longer teach cursive.

“With technology, most kids write as they get older with a computer, so that is basically why,” said Susan Griesinger, the elementary curriculum coordinator for Jackson County Schools.

Nolte said as students increasingly “key” instead of write, the arguments for cursive — being able to write faster and more fluidly — falls by the wayside in the face of computers, which are gradually taking the place of pen and paper for upper grade levels.

That makes the signature the last vestige of cursive that most kids today would ever use. And even there, PIN numbers and online banking is even making the need for a signature obsolete unless you work as a bank loan officer or doctor who has to sign things daily.

“The practical matter is that even though we have trained almost everyone who has come through public school to cursive write, very few use it,” Nolte said.

 

Dotting their I’s

Not all school systems have thrown in the towel on cursive.

“Our teachers have been teaching it because they feel like the kids need to know it,” said Carol Waldrop, elementary curriculum coordinator for Macon County Schools. “They don’t worry about a kid being proficient in it anymore, but they do want the kids to be able to read it because a lot of people use it.”

Waldrop said teachers have been asking what they should do now that cursive was dropped from the standard curriculum.

“I guess it is kind of up to the school districts now whether they want to or not,” Waldrop said.

Waldrop admits, though, that cursive is fading. Even her own children complained about learning it and then not using it after fourth grade.

Neighboring Swain still teaches cursive as well. Although, like Haywood County Schools, handwriting is not drilled today like it was for older generations.

“The biggest push is on being able to read cursive writing,” said Beth Coulter, the principal of West Swain Elementary. “Part of it is just knowledge to be able to function in society. It is something they will encounter throughout life.”

Therein lies the conundrum with completely discontinuing cursive. Some cursive letters look the same as their print counter parts, but others look nothing alike. A cursive “r,” “s” or “f” would be practically undecipherable to someone who’s never been exposed to cursive.

 

A case for cursive

Meanwhile, cursive is taught in kindergarten at Carolina Day School, a private school in Asheville. During their very first week of kindergarten last month, 5-year-olds began practicing cursive — even before they tackled print.

The reason isn’t to show off the prowess of private school but rather is rooted in theories about how the brain functions when writing.

“The actual process of writing is a kinesthetic process, not cognitive. It is muscle memory,” explained Kim Broshar, assistant principal and learning specialist for Carolina Day’s K-5 school.

And when it comes to cursive, the continuous flow of the letters, stringing one into the next, actually feels more natural than print — where you constantly stop and lift your pencil not only between each letter but often once or twice to even make a single letter, like a capital “F,” which takes three different strokes.

Imprinting the “muscle memory” of cursive letters, when taught before print, is actually easier for children, Broshar said. And therein lies the goal.

“When children start writing their ideas, you want their brain to be used for the formation of their ideas and what they want to say — not the letter formation and to spell the words,” Broshar said.

After the school began teaching cursive in kindergarten, the first-grade teachers noticed an immediate difference in the length of journal entries of those students compared to past students who used print.

“The children write so much more when they are not trying to remember how to make the letter,” Broshar said.

It’s the same reason cursive is the preferred form of writing when taking notes quickly in high school or college.

“The speed is quicker,” Broshar said. “You are using your brain to attend to what you are hearing and thinking. You can listen to your lecture, and it flows out the end of your pencil instead of stopping and starting with each letter.”

 

Slow march to oblivion

On the flip side, today’s college kids rarely take notes by hand any more. And certainly in another decade — by the time today’s third-graders get to college — a pad full of hastily scrawled notes during college lectures will surely be a distant memory.

As for the signature argument: why spend hours of third-graders’ time drilling cursive just so they can sign checks in cursive one day?

One of the chief arguments in favor of cursive sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, one that could propel schools to churn out future generations of cursive users simply to keep up with the Joneses. The argument goes like this: kids should learn cursive because other people use it and thus they’ll need to be able to read it.

The only way to counter that argument is for schools to universally quit teaching cursive all at once. If no one learned it, no one would use it, and the next generation could promptly send cursive to its deathbed rather than the long, slow, painful march toward oblivion being witnessed now.

If and when that time comes, however, everything from the Declaration of Independence to WWII love letters would become illegible without consulting a translation chart to decipher cursive letters.

“There is a legitimate emotional connection to cursive for a lot of people,” Nolte said. “It is like me. They have letters at home from their mom who is not with them anymore written in cursive.”

Some teachers in Haywood County have backed off cursive more than others. Brooks Nichols, a third-grade teacher at Central Elementary in Waynesville, said she’ll keep teaching it — not drilling it or testing it but teaching it.

Nichols uses cursive herself to take notes during teacher staff meetings, claiming it is quicker and easier.

“I feel like it is an important thing to still learn,” said Nichols. “It is not something we will spend an hour at a time on, but they will be exposed to all the letters.”

Schools trying to split the middle on cursive — exposing kids to it so they can read it but not drilling it — arguable aren’t laying enough of a foundation for students to actually use cursive and tap the perceived benefits of writing more quickly, more fluidly and without their hand cramping.

But, that’s what computers are for, Nolte said.

“There is no doubt there is a social shift occurring related to technology, and I don’t know if there is anything we can do to change that or if it our job to change that,” Nolte said.

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