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Cursive Writing Is Taught Less And Less, Which Concerns Some Teachers

Bill Zeeble
Roxanne Thompson teaches educators the fine points on cursive writing instruction.

Some teachers are back in class, learning to teach cursive writing. It’s been cut way back in our digital, keyboarding age. Some teachers, though, say it’s vital to learning.

Roxanne Thompson is leading this cursive writing class in front of a couple dozen elementary and special education teachers, as well as occupational therapists. Working for the company Handwriting Without Tears, she spreads the cursive writing gospel through weekend seminars like this one in Dallas.

“I’m teaching them essentially how to teach it. It is not taught,” Thompson says.

Texas requires students to learn cursive writing in third grade. By fourth grade, they’re supposed to write legibly, either in cursive or block letters. Thompson says one year is not long enough.

“The problem with just teaching cursive in third grade is that when we don’t’ follow up in fourth and fifth grade, by requiring the kids to use it, if you teach cursive and then never have them use it, that’s why they never get good at it and that’s why we don’t see them use it when  they get older,” Thompson says.

By high school or college, teachers say some students can’t even sign their name. Pamela Jackson has worked with some of these kids in a North Texas charter high school. She said they spent so much time on keyboards that they had difficulty writing with a pen or pencil.

“Nobody knew cursive writing at all,” Jackson says. “They told me they weren’t taught how to do it.”

So instead, Jackson had them print the assignment, and projected the students’ paragraphs onto the wall for the whole class.

“And they weren’t able to read what was up there,” she says.

A push to keyboarding may explain why there’s less emphasis on teaching cursive. But Thompson, the cursive instructor, says keyboarding is hardly taught. So that leaves many kids using the keyboard standby -- the old hunt and peck method.

Kathryn Pole says that’s a distraction all its own. She’s an assistant professor of literacy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“When they’re typing, they’re not really thinking about what it is they’re hearing,” Pole says. “They’re more focused on just getting the notes down. The handwriting piece, they’re actually thinking about what it is that they’re writing.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Kathryn Pole is an assistant professor of literacy studies at UT-Arlington's Education College.

That’s one reason Pole favors cursive writing.

Research, including studies from Indiana University and the University of Washington, shows kids who learn to write and take handwritten notes remember more of what they’ve read and also write faster. Other research shows they’re better spellers.

Another advantage? Pole says cursive allows note-taking without lifting pen from paper. 

“The more fluent you can get, the more able to focus on content,” Pole says. “And so if you can keep the flow going, you’re much more likely to spend most of your effort thinking about what it is you want to say rather than the mechanics of the writing itself.”

Pole realizes that getting kids to use cursive is an uphill battle.

"It’s a missing art,” Pole says. “The focus on even letter formation is not so much part of curriculum anymore. And so kids are, ‘however it’s shaped, as long as it’s kind of close’ is OK.”

Pole says, almost cynically, if the state had a cursive writing test, it would be taught. She and others, who want cursive to live on, aren’t trashing keyboards. They say it’s best for kids to master both. In some cases, however, cursive is the clear winner.  

Ces Hocson is an occupational therapist who attended the cursive instruction course. She says kids she works with write more legibly once they’ve learned cursive.

“I’ve found that for a lot of the kids, neuro typical and those with special needs, cursive writing is actually easier than print writing because in print writing you have to stop and go,” Hocson says.  

As students continue using digital tablets, smart phones and the latest digital devices in school, these cursive writing advocates don’t expect a rebirth of cursive writing anytime soon. 

This story is part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative, which charts the journey from childhood to graduation. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.