Reports of the death of cursive are greatly exaggerated

On Board Online • March 27, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

After years of focus on ensuring that students have the keyboard proficiency they'll need to thrive in a digital world, interest in reinvigorating cursive writing instruction is gaining momentum.

The New York City school system recently issued two new handbooks with tips for educators on how to teach handwriting, in general, and cursive writing, in particular. The handbooks are shining a spotlight on time-honored skills that, in many cases, have yielded to the classroom clatter of keyboards and mouse clicks.

"We're focused on providing schools with the best instructional resources," Will Mantell, a spokesman for the city schools, told On Board. "It's certainly not a mandate, and it is certainly a case where the decision remains at the school level. There are some schools that have been teaching cursive all along."

That's true statewide, although the exact number of districts still requiring cursive instruction is not known. In some districts where it has disappeared, school officials told On Board, the decision predates current curriculum staff and the reasons are unknown.

"In New York State, the decision to teach cursive writing is a local school district decision," State Education Department officials said. "It's also important to note that, although the standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that can or should be taught."

States are divided in how they feel about cursive writing. Hawaii, Illinois and Indiana dropped requirements to teach cursive in favor of keyboard instruction in recent years. But Massachusetts, California, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas recently approved laws or policies explicitly requiring schools to teach cursive writing.

The move to encourage stronger cursive instruction in New York City coincides with public comments from Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island), who was alarmed by an 18-year-old's inability to provide a signature at a voter registration event. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) has introduced a bill that would make cursive writing instruction and memorization of multiplication tables mandatory in the state's elementary schools.

Others take the opposite view. "Let Cursive Handwriting Die," was the headline of a 2013 article in The New York Times by Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California. "There is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching," he asserted.

However, a 2016 review of 80 research studies by Tanya Santangelo of Arcadia University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University found that the quality and legibility of students' writing improved with cursive instruction.

In addition, "when students have full agency with handwriting, they can devote cognitive resources to other writing processes, such as planning, content, generation and sentence construction," New York City's cursive handbook says, citing Santangelo and Graham. "They are also less likely to forget ideas held in working memory as they convert them to text."

Researchers have found that cursive writing appears to reinforce good spelling, too, suggesting that it may be easier to remember how to spell words while writing them in the continuous flow of script.

Cursive writing also had apparent benefits for taking class notes, compared with typing on a laptop computer. Studies found that students who hand-wrote their notes were better at answering questions that required analytical thought, indicating they were more able to think critically about a topic while they were writing by hand.

Such findings come as no surprise for teachers in schools where lessons in longhand remain part of the curriculum.

"For some kids, this fluid activity of writing is almost a magical experience," said Robb Moore, a fifth-grade teacher in Saratoga County's Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district, where cursive instruction begins in third grade.

He points out that many historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, were written in cursive. Students need to be able to read such documents, as well as contemporary examples of cursive writing.

"Can you imagine getting a hand-written note in the mail that you could not read? What if you wanted to work in the post office?" Moore asked. "I don't know if people have been aware of all the repercussions (of not teaching cursive) as we move through time. It does close off options."

Moore requires his students to keep journals in cursive script. He recalled what a challenge that posed for a student teacher who had not learned cursive writing when she was in school. She was unable to read the students' journal work.

Occupational therapist Kathy Kindl recently helped a group of Burnt Hills third-graders prepare for a handwriting lesson with finger-flexing exercises she called "mouse ears." It's part of a "kinesthetic approach" that pairs learning with physical activity.

"The big piece with handwriting is developing fluency so that handwriting becomes more of an automatic process, and they are not wasting cognitive energy on it," Kindl told On Board.

While adults talk about saving cognitive energy, elementary students view the merits of cursive writing in different terms.

It's fun, they say.

In the Cohoes school district in Albany County, several second-graders told a reporter they prefer to write in cursive, rather than print.

Levi Wood began to explain: "You don't have to ."

"Lift your pencil from the paper," classmate Eva Majer chimed in, finishing his thought.

"It's like scribbling, kind-of," added Lauryn Gyamfi.

"It's fancy," Shayla Poulin and Isabella Riberdy agreed.

Nyzayah Richmond was all business with his purely practical take: "It's faster," he declared.

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