The cursive debate

In a world where keyboarding is king, the practice of learning handwriting has taken a back seat

Rows and rows of hunched up backs, faces screwed up in concentration trying to remember the cursive Q looks like a 2 in order to translate it by hand over and over again on endless, grainy, eraser-chewed sheets of paper. All those dotted lines and all that time getting that slant just so, all so that, once mastered, the long-suffering student of cursive could chuck the rules in favor of bubble-letters and swirls that were uniquely theirs.

This is what learning cursive used to be, but not anymore. In fact, the discipline that once garnered its own class time, now, if taught at all, is lumped in with Language Arts. This is a direct reflection of the world students inhabit and are being prepared for: clacking keys and fonts, not curlicues and paper. Even upper classmen have done away with dog-eared notebooks in favor of sleeker laptops, tablets and smartphones.

And that's not likely to change. Handwriting is not a mandated skill under the Common Core Standards, adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia in 2010 and rolled out in most schools in New Hampshire this year. Teachers now only have to make sure that children know how to make and read letters, not that they learn cursive. There is however, a keyboarding requirement that students must meet by the end of the fourth grade.

The shift is not new, as cursive handwriting nationwide has been on the decline since the 1970s. In fact, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the UK-based Docmail, a print and post company, one in five participants couldn't remember the last time they had to write something neatly. The study also found that of the 2,000 participants, more than half, said their handwriting has declined, and a third admitted not being able to read their own handwriting when they do write something down.

In New Hampshire, state officials leave it up to the individual districts to decide if it will be taught and so, some have already done away with the practice.

"We don't have a formal handwriting curriculum, and we don't plan on instituting one," says Leo Corriveau, superintendent for the Monadnock Regional School District, which encompasses Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Sullivan, Surry, Swanzey and Troy. "The kids just sort of pick it up along the way."

Students are still expected to know how to form letters, but cursive is not the mandatory thing it used to be, says Wayne Woolridge, superintendent of SAU 29, which includes Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland.

 And where students 50 years ago would spend 30 minutes just working on handwriting and penmanship, something that used to be a source of pride from some students, in SAU 29, for example, teachers spend roughly 15 minutes teaching handwriting per day, Woolridge said.

There are some teachers who are OK with letting handwriting take less of a prominent role. For one thing, teachers often speak of not having enough time to teach the core academics, so to add in mandatory handwriting study, even at 15 or 30 minutes, seems daunting and may take away from other topics of study.

For the districts that do formally teach handwriting, they tend to follow the Handwriting without Tears Method and it's usually done in the third grade. This method strips down cursive so that it's basically linked letters without the flourishes and ornamentation of previous iterations of cursive.

The argument for keeping handwriting as part of a curriculum are good ones, said Maggie Sergeant, a former teacher and current tutor at the James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard.

First off, it's a faster way of writing and when technology fails, which occasionally it does, one still needs to be able to communicate, she says. Also, there are some who don't pick up cursive easily when it's learned in passing or through the course of other studies, and they may end up having trouble with their studies because of it.

Further, handwriting helps children develop fine motor skills, Sargeant says, and is often used to help children with dyslexia.

Not to mention, anyone looking to do original research with historic documents, would be at a complete loss without some knowledge of how to read cursive, she says.

Keene State College English Professor Kate Tirabassi said anecdotally she can see the value of students having a basic knowledge of cursive.

"I just had students … in the archives, transcribing letters between a husband and wife from the World War II era, and they had a very hard time deciphering the letters," she says. "I had much less difficulty, though, in some cases it was the handwriting. I think it's a literacy skill that can be important in doing work like archival research."

That said, functional literacy standards ,or, what we need to function in society, shift over time.

"Which is why we're often in a perpetual literacy crisis, because each generation decries the loss of a skill that we no longer teach in favor of a new literacy skill that has become essential," she said. "The letters that my students were reading were voluminous. There were boxes and boxes of these letters, but think about how we – and how kids these days— communicate. Most of us aren't writing handwritten letters, so functional literacy might be teaching typing to younger students instead."

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Alstead.