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Should Utah schools still teach cursive?

Published April 5, 2013 8:06 am

Education • Studies say writing by hand can boost learning, but do kids still need the art of cursive?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Six-year-old Sasha Moore is so eager to learn cursive that she's already started practicing her loops, swoops and curves at home.

"I want to be smart when I grow up," said the Copperview Elementary first-grader who's watched her older siblings use cursive for years.

Whether she'll actually learn cursive in school, however, is hardly written in stone. New Common Core academic standards, adopted by Utah and 44 other states, don't include cursive, leaving the decision up to each state whether to continue teaching it. The Utah State Board of Education is slated to discuss and possibly vote on the issue Friday.

On one side are those who say cursive is no longer needed because most people use print or communicate electronically. They say it's an outdated skill that's taking up valuable instruction time.

On the other side are those who say cursive is a faster, more artful way to communicate, still needed in a world where not everyone has access to computers all the time. They say it also connects children to historic documents and older relatives.

The board's discussion Friday will follow nearly a year's worth of work by a committee of Utah educators who were tasked with studying the issue. After examining research, the committee decided to recommend the state continue to teach cursive.

"We looked at both sides of the issue," said member Rebecca Okey, an elementary reading specialist in the Weber School District. "It was a consensus that, yes, it was an important part to keep."

'Nice and professional' • On a recent school day at Copperview Elementary in Midvale, fifth-grader Brooklyn Nord worked on a common assignment: an essay about her spring break.

"If you're writing something that's important you might want to do it in cursive to make it look nice and professional," said Brooklyn, 10, as she composed her essay in cursive. She also writes cursive letters to her grandmother about once a week.

She was one of only a couple of kids in the class, however, who chose cursive over print — a trend some say mirrors adult use.

Copperview parent Elizabeth Lucas said she rarely uses cursive. She said she is not opposed to teaching it, but she doesn't see it as a priority.

"I have to think there is limited time in the school day, and given that, there are better things they could do with that time," Lucas said as she picked up her daughter from school Tuesday.

Parent Bekah Olney said she also doesn't use cursive except to sign her name. She said it's a nice art for children to learn, but "technology has kind of taken over handwriting in general for most people."

Throughout most of the last century, young students typically got 30 to 45 minutes of handwriting instruction each day, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). Today, that's closer to 15 minutes, on average.

So far, at least Alabama, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Kansas and Idaho have either voted to add cursive into their versions of the Common Core or are encouraging schools to keep teaching it, according to NASBE and organizers of a handwriting summit last year. Indiana's state department of education, however, notified principals in 2011 that schools could opt out of teaching cursive. A bill that would reverse that policy is working its way through the Indiana Legislature, and a similar bill is winding through the North Carolina Legislature.

'Still a need' • Utah Deputy State Superintendent Brenda Hales said schools in Utah could continue to teach cursive even if the state board doesn't vote to formally require it. But cursive will be mandatory if the board votes to include it in the standards. The board will likely discuss the committee's recommendations Friday and may vote to put the proposals out for public comment.

Now, Utah students typically learn cursive in third grade, and it was required in Utah's old standards.

Hales said she believes cursive's time is not yet over.

"There's still a need to be able to write legibly even though we have technology," she said. "Another thing is they need to be able to read cursive, and I don't think that's going to go away either."

At some Utah schools, cursive is still a cherished art. The private Reid School in Salt Lake City frequently claims winners in the Annual National Handwriting Contest. Principal Ethna Reid, who wrote a book on how to teach cursive and print, said students are expected to write in cursive every day, all day once they learn it.

"The students' writing is absolutely beautiful," Reid said, "and because of it they're better readers and better writers."

One of this year's winners, Reid School seventh-grader Max Nelson, said he uses cursive almost all the time. He constantly earns compliments on the quality of his handwriting.

"I find it a lot faster and easier to use cursive rather than print," Max said. "I think it's a good skill to have because you never know when you might not have a computer."

How does handwriting help? • The question, however, is whether cursive is a nice-to-have or a must-have in schools. Does it improve education and/or job prospects, or is it merely a skill wrapped in feelings of nostalgia?

The state office committee looked at a number of studies. Research shows that learning handwriting can aid in development of fine motor skills, literacy, brain development, memory and written expression, according to NASBE.

For example, writing by hand has been shown to help children recognize and remember letters better than typing, and writing by hand helps engage the brain, according to experts at a summit last year called "Handwriting in the 21st Century?" sponsored by Zaner-Bloser and the American Association of School Administrators.

Also, legibility can affect others' perception of the writer's intelligence, and if children can't master writing by hand automatically, it can interfere with other processes of learning and expression, said Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University who has researched handwriting issues.

But Graham said there's no consensus among researchers about whether teaching cursive is better than teaching print.

He said few studies have compared the two. There's little difference in the speed at which an adult who's always used cursive can write versus one who's always used print, he added.

And as cursive has become less complex, its ability to tie kids to the past may not be very strong, he said. The writing in the U.S. Constitution, for example, looks different than the cursive Americans are accustomed to today.

He doesn't have a problem with schools teaching cursive or print or both, just as long as handwriting is part of the equation. But he said there are probably more important issues to focus on, such as children's struggle to master writing in general.

"There's been a lot of hysteria over this," Graham said. "In the pantheon of things to get worried about this is probably a small one."