Handwriting no longer a school priority
Vail, CO Colorado
WASHINGTON ” John Hancock wouldn’t recognize the handwriting taught in many schools today. And his loopy slanted script might as well be a foreign language to 21st century students.
Time and technology have largely done away with traditional penmanship, leaving schools with a challenge that mirrors today’s fast pace: how to teach a cursive style that’s faster to write than older, ornate methods and easily readable.
The reality in many schools is that handwriting instruction has slid far down the list of education priorities. Many teachers have all they can do to ready students for standardized tests and requirements for core courses like math, science and reading.
“The printing and cursive are taking more of a back seat,” said Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Why teach cursive at all when computers and keyboards are so prevalent? For one thing, younger children may not have the skills to fully learn keyboarding, and not all classrooms have computers.
Handwriting is how young students express themselves and develop as learners, said Steve Graham, special education professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn.
Unfortunately, some who have trouble with writing mechanics have problems with other language arts skills.
“What we see with some young kids who struggle, they don’t like writing a lot,” Graham said.
The goal is for handwriting mechanics to become automatic so they don’t get in the way of other skills.
Depending on the school district, children may be taught handwriting methods known as Zaner-Bloser, “Loops and Groups” or D’Nealian ” and that’s only a few. Another program called “Handwriting Without Tears” is getting a close look around the country. Fifteen states have recommended it for public schools, the company said, and the program is used by many homeschoolers. The company didn’t provide sales figures.
It’s a method that might strike Hancock, known for his flowery signature on the Declaration of Independence, as heresy.
The cursive is vertical ” no slanting. Gone are the fancy capital letters. Writing paper has two lines, not three: The traditional middle dotted line that disciplined wayward lower-case letters is now a solid line, and there’s no top line.
One school system that switched is Arlington County, Va., in the Washington suburbs, which adopted “Handwriting Without Tears” as standard curriculum for the fall.
“It’s not so flowery looking. It’s easy to read and the letters are easy to make,” said Mary Zolman, English Language Arts supervisor for Arlington’s public schools, which have more than 18,000 students.
“Handwriting Without Tears” was developed by Jan Z. Olsen, a Cabin John, Md., pediatric occupational therapist, to help her first-grade son’s handwriting problems. She found traditional cursive “way too curlicue” and slanted, which she said is difficult for children with “any sort of learning issue.”
Like many school systems, Arlington starts cursive in the second grade for students who are developmentally ready. In third grade, all students are taught cursive.
But not all master it easily. In a recent third-grade class at the county’s Barcroft Elementary School, some students using the older cursive method labored over letters.
Their complaints: The capital S “looks like a duck,” the loopy lower case K is “hardest to make” and the dotted line between ledger lines is “in my way.” Teacher Donna Crocker gave them catchy poems to copy to make the lesson more interesting.
Writing progress in her class is so varied that Crocker has students print, rather than write in cursive, when they produce written samples for evaluation several times a year. “Teachers have to be able to read it,” she explained.
Crocker, who has taught for more than two decades and has special education certification, said she tries to devote 15 minutes to handwriting at the beginning of most days, but test preparation and other subjects take priority.
“In order of importance, this is way down,” she said.
But if cursive is down, it’s certainly not out.
On the essay section of the SAT, required by most colleges for admission, students writing in cursive averaged slightly higher scores than those who printed. The College Board, which administers the SAT, said the difference wasn’t significant and couldn’t be attributed to handwriting, yet the result has intrigued researchers.
In one study, college students who took good lecture notes got higher scores on essay tests. The best predictor of quality notetaking was writing speed, said researcher Stephen T. Peverly, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.
“Since at least for many kids the thoughts they think up are a little ahead of their handwriting, they need to be able to write fast or they’re going to forget them,” he said. Faster writing also helps the brain spend less effort on forming letters and more on higher-order cognitive tasks like composing good essays, he said.
The findings are a boost for cursive, since its continuous linking of letters is faster than print, in which the pen must be lifted.
“For most people cursive is a more efficient form of writing,” Peverly said.
Ultimately, most students and adults end up adopting a hybrid writing style of printing and cursive, said Peabody’s Graham.
“What Americans tend to gravitate towards is functionality,” Graham said. “We want things that can be done quickly and efficiently. When you look at the scripts now, you can argue that we’ve lost something in terms of aesthetic beauty.”