A Washington state senator's attempt to make it mandatory in public schools didn't even get a committee vote. Educators say their time is at a premium -- and that typing is a much more practical skill.
OLYMPIA — Upon hearing from a teacher that her son’s handwriting needed some work, Suzi Allan, of Bonney Lake, sought help. She asked when his class would be learning cursive. But like many schools, Victor Falls Elementary doesn’t teach it.
A third-grade teacher offered to print an online packet, if Allan wanted to teach her son at home.
No doubt about it, cursive is dying. Around the country, school districts have been backing out, citing, increasing demands on teachers’ time, a need to focus on the Common Core and other state standards, and the fact that we’re in the digital age.
Others argue, and not just out of nostalgia, that cursive is still necessary for some of the most important things: a signature, or the ability to read historical documents in their original form, like the Declaration of Independence.
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The merits of ensuring schools continue to teach cursive have been debated nationwide, and the discussion reached the steps of the Washington Capitol this session, if only briefly.
State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, sponsored Senate Bill 6469 to mandate cursive as part of the Washington state curriculum. But the bill didn’t get a committee vote, and no one showed up to offer testimony.
“We’re creating this chasm where the first generation can read our history and the other cannot,” Roach explained.
Roach was in disbelief, she said, when she handed her grandson a list of groceries written in cursive and he couldn’t read it.
Currently, 15 states require cursive to be taught in their schools through statutes, administrative codes or language-arts standards. Washington is not one of those states, according to research conducted by the Washington State library, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Education Commission of the States
In Washington and elsewhere, the decision to include cursive in the curriculum is made by individual school districts, sometimes by individual teachers.
That’s what happened at Victor Falls Elementary in the Sumner School District, where Allan was asking about penmanship lessons for her son.
“Cursive is no longer required,” explained Sarah Gillispie, communications manager for the Sumner district. Teachers can choose to teach it, she added, but “the system has moved away from handwriting to be more digitally based.”
“It appears that Washington has almost always had a law about penmanship or handwriting,” observed Mary Paynton Schaff, a Washington state reference librarian, “but the state’s interpretation of that term and what it represents has changed significantly since its original inclusion in the law by the first state Legislature.”
Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington professor of educational psychology, was part of a team that undertook a five-year study of student development. They tested for relationships between types of writing and learning outcomes, as well as if those relationships differed by grade level.
So which writing form should be taught?
“We’re arguing for a hybrid model,” Berninger said.
But time is at a premium, a shared worry among teachers. How can they teach all three forms of writing: printing, handwriting and typing?
Luckily, ingraining a writing style doesn’t take a lot of time. The study discovered that working on any form of writing for five to 10 minutes a day, maybe three times a week, is just as effective as dedicating a half-hour to an hour.
Berninger finds handwritten print connects to better reading skills because much of what is read is in that format. Studies show this is best taught from kindergarten to second grade.
Cursive specifically helps with spelling and forming sentences because of the way it connects letters together, making students perceive letters as whole-word units, Berninger said. Evidence gleaned from a study of 99 children between third and seventh grades showed it’s best to teach cursive in third and fourth grade.
Typing correctly, using both hands without looking at them, strengthens communication between the left and right side of the brain, according to the study.
The transition from middle childhood to early adolescence is when that communication is most efficient, so it needs to be taught as early as fourth and continue through eighth grade.
“It’s not about teaching handwriting in isolation, or keyboarding,” Berninger insisted. “It’s always about teaching it as a tool for the really important thing: idea expression and communication.”