‘Write stuff’ part of curriculum at Mountaineer Montessori School
Is the writing on the wall for cursive? In many states, they answer is increasingly yes, as schools limit or eliminate cursive education in favor of keyboard proficiency and computer literacy for students. Time constraints and new curriculum demands presented by the Common Core State Standards, adopted in West Virginia and 44 other states, are also forcing educators to rethink the value of penmanship instruction.
In Kanawha County Schools, however, cursive remains a part of the third grade curriculum.
“Students still have to sign contracts, checks, job applications and other documents in their lifetime,” says Superintendent Ron Duerring. “It (handwriting) is not as an essential skill as it once was due to technology, but still part of a well-rounded education. “
Many private schools, notably Catholic and Montessori institutions, maintain a strong classroom emphasis on cursive writing. “The hand is the instrument of man’s intelligence,” said Dr. Maria Montessori, a devout Roman Catholic and founder of the eponymous educational method.
“Cursive handwriting is definitely not an outdated form of writing. It is still faster to write in cursive and we all still need to write quickly at times,” notes Mountaineer Montessori Head of School Dana Gilliland. “Cursive is also creative expression,” she says. “It’s a beautiful art form that is satisfying to do and pleasing to read.”
Story behind the script
Historically, the ability to write with a “fair hand” was recognized as a marker of the author’s educational attainment, social status and even occupation. John Hancock, for example, is known almost as much for his oversized signature as his contributions to the American Revolution. In fact, National Writing Day is celebrated each year on his birthday – January 23.
In attempt to democratize and bring handwriting to the American masses, the abolitionist Platt Rogers Spencer developed a standard cursive style in the mid-1800s that was taught in classrooms across the country. The ornate Spencer method – think the Coca-Cola logo— gave way to the simpler Palmer method around the turn of the century. The Palmer style, famously practiced by generations of students who formed loopy letters between dotted lines, has been replaced by Zane-Bloser or D’Nealian cursive in many classrooms.
More than just a pretty face?
Regardless of the style taught, educators point to advantages of learning cursive beyond the ability to write quickly or in a visually pleasing way. “Several studies show there are cognitive benefits to students,” notes Duerring.
- Literacy: A 2012 Indiana University study showed that pre-literate children exhibited greater activity in the areas of the brain used in reading when they reproduced a letter in writing than by typing or tracing. Writing by hand involves planning and executing a specific result, said researcher Karin James. “This is one of the first demonstrations of the brain being changed because of the practice,” James noted in a New York Times article. “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, explained in the same June 2, 2014, New York Times piece, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” “And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”
- Memory and comprehension: According to a Princeton University/UCLA study published this year in “Psychological Science,” college students who took notes in longhand had better recall and comprehension of lecture content than those who used keyboards. When taking notes rather than transcribing lectures on a laptop, students mentally interpret, process and organize information, leading to deeper learning, more actuate memory and richer understanding of material, the authors “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard” say.
- Reading: It may sound obvious, but learning cursive helps students read cursive, a skill still needed to understand both historic and everyday communication. Writing in the June 27, 2014 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Valerie Hotchkiss, a librarian at the University of Illinois-Champaign Rare Books and Manuscript Library, recounted a recent conversation with a college student who came to her for help in reading a clearly written 19th century letter. “I don’t ‘do’ cursive,” the student shrugged.
- Clear communication: Doctors’ poor handwriting contributes to an estimated 7,000 deaths annually according to a July 2006 report from the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine.
As classroom time shrinks for cursive instruction, parents can help children develop an appreciation and mastery of handwriting. Vanessa Silver, author of “Handwriting without Tears,” suggests some fun activities to spark interest in penmanship:
- Start a journal or find a pen pal
- Play “movie star” to practice and develop a pleasing “autograph”
- Help with family writing tasks, such as grocery lists, signing greeting cards, etc.
- Share old family recipes and letters written by hand
“We need to work hard to preserve cursive writing, in spite of all the available technology,” says Gilliland of Mountaineer Montessori School. “Students should take pride in their handwriting, not only to make positive impressions and statements about themselves, but to advance themselves successfully in school and beyond.”
“People think we don’t need this anymore because we have technology, but we still want to able to write in cursive,” says Mary Cohen in an article appearing in the Denver Catholic Register.
“It’s polite to hand write a note because it’s a way of reverencing them,” Cohen, the associate superintendent of Denver Catholic Schools, said. “You leave your DNA on paper,” she said adding that cursive is “really an important part of our humanity.”
Article by JoEllen Zacks, an education advocate and vice president of the MMS Board of Directors, writing for the Charleston Gazette July 27, 2014, “Back-to-School” section.