Teaching cursive: Schools disagree on if it's still a priority

Teaching cursive: Schools disagree on if it's still a priority

About a month ago, Sheila Greenwood was talking with a first-grade boy in her office, when he noticed some of her handwritten notes.

The Bement schools superintendent and grade school principal had written in cursive. But to the boy, it might as well have been secret code.

"He wondered what in the world those 'scribbles' were — and I have good handwriting," Greenwood said, flabbergasted he couldn't read them. "I just don't think about kids not having seen that."

Then again, Greenwood pointed out, for students who have grown up in the digital age, writing often involves typing on a computer or tapping out words on a smartphone or electronic tablet. And most handwriting involves printing.

"We spend very little time teaching cursive ... and more time printing because of technology and because we're having to spend so much time on teaching the state learning standards," she said.

The state of Illinois has let local school districts decide whether to teach cursive, but that's about to change under a new law.

Starting next school year, they must provide at least one unit of instruction to elementary-level students before the fifth grade.


Heritage Elementary: Teaching starts at end of second grade

For some districts in East Central Illinois, that won't be a problem. They still teach cursive, although most, if not all, have cut back instructional time.

"When I first started teaching ... we'd practice 30 minutes twice a week," said Kim Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Mahomet-Seymour's Lincoln Trail Elementary and a 30-year veteran. "But now, our curriculum has become really crowded, so it's about half that time. We maybe practice for 15 minutes once or twice a week."

Using a multi-sensory curriculum called "Handwriting Without Tears," Johnson teaches by modeling how to write lowercase and uppercase letters on her SmartBoard and describing her actions. Her students practice tracing them in the air, then write them on their whiteboard and in their workbook.

"We cover all the letters by the end of the year," Johnson said, adding by that time, "they should be able to write in cursive."

As students move on to higher grades, they review and refine their skills, usually during vocabulary lessons and writing assignments for other subjects, Johnson said. Some fourth-grade teachers require their students to write their assignments in cursive, she added.

Cerro Gordo, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, Heritage, Oakwood and Salt Fork are among the districts that teach or begin teaching cursive in the second grade.

"We begin the last quarter of second grade," Heritage Junior High and Elementary Principal Kristi Sanders said, adding that teachers devote about 10 to 15 minutes a day to instruction.

In third grade, students spend about 15 to 20 minutes every other day practicing writing while soft music plays in the background.

"Fourth and fifth grade is where we're refining more," Sanders said, adding it's incorporated into other lessons.


GCMS' Nuss: 'It's important enough that we take time' for it

Both Monticello and Oakwood educators debated whether to do away with curriculum as the need to focus on core subjects and meeting state learning standards intensified and more classroom work and state testing moved from paper and pencils to computers.

Oakwood even moved away from formal instruction, opting for unstructured activities instead.

At the time, the grade school was introducing new reading and math series "and trying to budget our time for that," curriculum coordinator Michelle Kimbro recalled. "But we felt it was important, so we brought it back."

"Our kids really get excited to learn cursive," said Principal Nicole Lapenas, who loves walking in on a lesson "and seeing the excitement. It's very motivating for them. For some kids, their handwriting is better in cursive. And some of our students with dyslexia can decipher words in cursive better than words in print. For example, the 'd's' don't look as much like 'b's.' That helps."

Sanders and Johnson said cursive also helps students develop their fine motor skills, increases speed and fluency in reading and writing and makes them more focused, among other things.

So while they — along with Lapenas and Erin Nuss, GCMS' curriculum director — are proponents of teaching technology at a young age, they still believe there's a place for "old school cursive handwriting" in the classroom.

"Do I think that students can not learn cursive and be successful in college? Yes," Nuss said.

"But we think it's important enough that we take time to do it," continued Nuss, who said all K-5 students have at least one explicit handwriting lesson a week and one handwriting-focused assignment a week. Those lessons are done in cursive in grades 2-5. "It's a life skill. It's not just about the writing. It's important for kids to know how to read it."

"At the very least, kids need to know how to write their signature," Lapenas added. "Someday they will be adults in the real world and will have to sign a check."


Danville's Hart: 'In the real world,' cursive not so common

Champaign, Danville and Paxton-Buckley-Loda are among the districts that don't currently have a districtwide curriculum, although at some, including Danville, it's taught at teachers' discretion.

At PBL, cursive instruction fell by the wayside so that it could focus on essential skills, said Tara Chandler, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. In doing so, PBL implemented a districtwide balanced literacy initiative, revamped the math curriculum districtwide and overhauled the science curriculum at the elementary level.

"It's an undertaking," Chandler said, adding that the changes have required extensive professional development on top of everyone's regular duties.

"The other thing we're really trying to get in is computational thinking and making sure they're getting the computer science skills they'll need for college and the workplace," she added. "I'm sure colleges aren't saying that kids are coming to them with bad cursive writing skills ... or the military or businesses in the workforce. They're saying, 'We need kids with more computer science and 21st century skills.'"

That's not saying she believes that knowing how to read and write cursive isn't important, Chandler said.

"There are a lot of things that are extremely valuable," she said. "I'd like to teach a second language at the elementary school level because that's when students are at an age when language acquisition happens. I'd love to teach coding at that age, so they can do more sophisticated things in high school. ... But we have to prioritize based on the fiscal and human resources that we have. We only have so much time in the day, so we want to use it as effectively and efficiently as possible."

"I think it's more of an art than a necessity today," added John Hart, Danville's assistant superintendent of elementary school education.

"In the real world, people aren't handwriting in cursive that much," he continued. "They're using technology to create documents and for written correspondence — emails, texts. You can deposit a check on your smartphone and pay your bills online. You don't even need to write your signature. You hit a button or provide a password."


Salt Fork's Cox: 'Springfield has bigger issues to deal with'

While it's not a mandate, cursive is taught at Salt Fork as a standalone subject to second-graders throughout the year. Students don't receive a grade on their report card, however.

"Overall, teachers report that students enjoy learning it," Superintendent Phil Cox said.

While not opposed to teaching it, Cox admitted he's not a huge fan.

He said he's more concerned that students are able to read and write at grade level than how they write.

Cox — along with Hart and Heritage Superintendent Tom Davis — also don't like that the new law is another unfunded mandate.

"We are already managing many requirements from the state," Davis said.

"And in my opinion, Springfield has bigger issues to deal with than whether or not cursive is taught in schools," Cox said. "I think these decisions are best left up to the local districts."


Urbana school district: Cursive teaching plan already in place

Urbana schools already have a recommendation in place for teaching cursive. Students would learn it and apply it to their own writing, while continuing printing, in third grade; refine their skills and use it for writing the "flows" and note-taking in fourth grade; and practice and refine their skills for formal compositions, while transitioning to keyboarding, in fifth grade.

Danville curriculum Director MaryEllen Bunton said a committee will begin meeting and developing a formal curriculum in the spring semester.

And Champaign schools will have a comprehensive plan by the end of the school year, according to district spokeswoman Emily Schmit.

Greenwood said Bement's instruction will take place in second grade. She added she has mixed feelings about bringing it back.

"There are still people who communicate in cursive," she said, including herself, "so they need to be able to understand it. And I do feel there's a value — hand-eye coordination, brain development, etcetera.

"But we keep getting these mandates, and there are only so many hours in a day," Greenwood continued, echoing her counterparts in other districts. "This is one more thing we have to find time to do. When one thing is added, something else has to give. We'll have to figure out what that is."

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Lostinspace wrote on December 03, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Professor Jones bans electronic devices from his classes.  Students will take notes how?

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on December 03, 2017 at 2:12 pm
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There's an article about handwriting that answers your question. It's just above this comments section.

BTW, I haven't used cursive since the Reagan administration. But I hope we're also teaching Morse Code and pig latin.

Lostinspace wrote on December 03, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Missed that part of the article.  Still missing it.  How deep will the dumbing down go?  The goal may be to reach the level of the old days, when peasants just needed to make a X.