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In Age of Keyboards and Computers, Is Cursive Writing Losing Its Grip in the Schools?

  • Gretta Koppers, 9, and Donovan Cole, 10, fourth-graders at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., sort hand-written letters from students to be delivered in-school as part of the TES Express mail program on January 23, 2014. "I think every grade got mail this week," said Cole, as he and Koppers delivered the letters to classrooms. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Gretta Koppers, 9, and Donovan Cole, 10, fourth-graders at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., sort hand-written letters from students to be delivered in-school as part of the TES Express mail program on January 23, 2014. "I think every grade got mail this week," said Cole, as he and Koppers delivered the letters to classrooms. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A daily schedule in teacher Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., lists a morning exercise in cursive writing on January 23, 2014. "It's striking that balance that gets a little bit tricky," Bennett said, explaining the scheduling considerations involved with teaching cursive writing along with other subjects. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    A daily schedule in teacher Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., lists a morning exercise in cursive writing on January 23, 2014. "It's striking that balance that gets a little bit tricky," Bennett said, explaining the scheduling considerations involved with teaching cursive writing along with other subjects. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Students Brennan Vaughan, left, 10, and Gretta Koppers, 9, in Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., work on their cursive writing assignments on January 24, 2014. Students were given a packet of worksheets for each letter of the alphabet, and then moved on to writing letters to classmates. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Students Brennan Vaughan, left, 10, and Gretta Koppers, 9, in Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., work on their cursive writing assignments on January 24, 2014. Students were given a packet of worksheets for each letter of the alphabet, and then moved on to writing letters to classmates. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford Elementary School students, from left, Jennifer LaPlume, Rose Novotny, and Ethan Howe, all 9, spend class time writing and using laptop computers in teacher Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade classroom in Thetford, Vt., on January 23, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Thetford Elementary School students, from left, Jennifer LaPlume, Rose Novotny, and Ethan Howe, all 9, spend class time writing and using laptop computers in teacher Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade classroom in Thetford, Vt., on January 23, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Fourth-grade teacher Brenda Bennett, right, helps Ethan Howe, 9, with a cursive writing assignment while Braden Martin, 10, raises his hand with a question and Rose Novotny, 9, completes a packet of cursive writing worksheets at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., January 24, 2014.(Valley News - Will Parson)

    Fourth-grade teacher Brenda Bennett, right, helps Ethan Howe, 9, with a cursive writing assignment while Braden Martin, 10, raises his hand with a question and Rose Novotny, 9, completes a packet of cursive writing worksheets at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., January 24, 2014.(Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gretta Koppers, 9, and Donovan Cole, 10, fourth-graders at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., sort hand-written letters from students to be delivered in-school as part of the TES Express mail program on January 23, 2014. "I think every grade got mail this week," said Cole, as he and Koppers delivered the letters to classrooms. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A daily schedule in teacher Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., lists a morning exercise in cursive writing on January 23, 2014. "It's striking that balance that gets a little bit tricky," Bennett said, explaining the scheduling considerations involved with teaching cursive writing along with other subjects. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Students Brennan Vaughan, left, 10, and Gretta Koppers, 9, in Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., work on their cursive writing assignments on January 24, 2014. Students were given a packet of worksheets for each letter of the alphabet, and then moved on to writing letters to classmates. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Thetford Elementary School students, from left, Jennifer LaPlume, Rose Novotny, and Ethan Howe, all 9, spend class time writing and using laptop computers in teacher Brenda Bennett's fourth-grade classroom in Thetford, Vt., on January 23, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Fourth-grade teacher Brenda Bennett, right, helps Ethan Howe, 9, with a cursive writing assignment while Braden Martin, 10, raises his hand with a question and Rose Novotny, 9, completes a packet of cursive writing worksheets at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., January 24, 2014.(Valley News - Will Parson)

For Kathy Darrah, a third-grader at Thetford Elementary School who is carefully signing her name on a piece of paper, learning cursive writing has been a welcome alternative to the blockiness of print letters. “It’s like a steady flow. It’s fun and it’s different,” she said, showing off the loops and tails and joined letters that are characteristic of cursive writing.

“You don’t have to pick your pencil up. It feels good to have a change of writing,” said Darrah’s classmate, Madison Mousley.

But as people rely on computers and technology to communicate, argument has focused on whether cursive writing, which for decades has been a rite of passage for children in elementary school, is still a necessary element of language arts education.

A debate last year on the New York Times website pitted the naysayers against the traditionalists. “Cursive should be allowed to die” because so few people use it in their daily lives, said a professor of education at the University of Southern California.

No, argued an archivist at the University of Arkansas, it’s a cultural tradition worth preserving, not least because history, until the late 20th and early 21st century, has been written largely in cursive. If you don’t teach it, you can’t read it, and if you can’t read it, how can you expect to decipher hand-written documents, whether they be letters from grandparents or letters from Abraham Lincoln?

Cursive writing is still being taught in the Upper Valley schools contacted for this story, although there is concern about whether it will survive the increased use of computers in schools.

“We do teach it but it’s not a heavy emphasis in our instruction,” said Elaine Arbour, assistant superintendent in SAU 6, the New Hampshire school district that includes Claremont, Cornish and Unity.

There are a few reasons for the decline of cursive writing instruction, Arbour said. First is the the dominance of electronic communication, and second is the implementation of the Smarter Balance assessments, aligned with the Common Core standards, in which testing will be done on computer. On the other side of the argument, she pointed to some educational studies that posit “that it’s more efficient to write cursive than print.”

Ben LaRoche, in his second year of teaching third grade at Thetford Elementary, changed his mind about cursive writing after watching how students responded to it.

“When I first got into teaching I didn’t see a lot of value in it, but ... I came around to the school of thought that it should be taught. It’s a good skill to be able to read it.” It also aids in teaching fine motor skills and neatness of presentation, he said, although he doesn’t think it should be required.

“The fluidity of handwriting helps develop the flow of their thoughts more than striking keys on a computer,” said Regina Bradley, also a third-grade teacher at Thetford.

In his 10 years at the Enfield Village School, P rincipal Justin Benna has observed that students in the younger grades like cursive writing because it makes them feel more grown up. Further, technology hasn’t yet replaced every aspect of hand-written communication. “I can’t imagine that being able to sign your name will ever go away,” he said. Benna, who like other educators is wrestling with the Common Core and the Smarter Balance testing, is concerned about elevating the typed answer over the handwritten one. Because third-graders will “be required to type written responses to prompts” on the tests, he said, that raises questions about when to teach them typing, and whether they would be able to touch-type at that age.

“To do it efficiently you need a fair amount of motor skill,” he said. The hunt-and-peck method of hitting the keys could be an inefficient use of children’s time, and could lead to stress and fatigue as a child labors to answer within a given time period. As a result, Benna said, “I worry about how valuable the assessment will be in the long run.”

At the White River School in Hartford, said Principal Sheila Powers, “although we do use a great deal of technology and devices in our school, we have not had a conversation about stopping (cursive) lessons in our school. ... We want them to have the ability to read it or write it.”

Because there is so much pressure on teachers now to include a wide range of material in lessons, as well as preparing students for assessment tests, there is not a great deal of extra time to teach cursive. “I think they fit it in as they can,” she said. But students are expected to keep handwritten journals for work in such subjects as science and social studies.

Not all the students at Thetford Elementary School were enamored of cursive. “Sometimes it can be annoying because there’s pressure to do it. I like having the option. But I don’t think we should ban it from the world. I think maybe they could have an option or a club for it,” said fourth-grader Rose Novotny.

Her classmate Lily Welch agreed. “I understand the importance of cursive, it’s a good skill to have. But I feel that as you get older it’s not as important to do. I don’t love doing cursive. I feel to concentrate on all the little loops, it’s hard and can be stressful.”

Donovan Cole, another fourth-grader, took a broader view. “It was the only way to communicate when computers and cell phones weren’t invented,” he said. “If we lose cursive we lose a piece of our history.”

Is cursive writing an endangered species then? “I’m not sure where it’s headed. It’s a transition period,” said retired Thetford Elementary School teacher Joe Minichiello, substituting for the day at the school. “My father was a linotype operator and that doesn’t exist anymore.” Cursive writing may one day be regarded as an art form, much like calligraphy, practiced by only a few, he said.

But there’s more to the subject of cursive writing than just the act of writing, said Benna. “Taking out a piece of paper and pencil necessarily slows you down, it gives your brain time to process and think.

“Technology is speeding us all up, but it’s OK to slow down,” he said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com