The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 17, 2012

Long-taught cursive writing skills lose ground in digital world

By Emily Younker
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Wyatt Satterlee, 8, loves writing in cursive.

“It’s just cool letters,” he said earlier last week. “And when the grown-ups write it, you can feel older.”

Wyatt and most of his third-grade classmates at Columbia Elementary School in Joplin were visibly excited last Wednesday to learn and practice two new lower-case letters — “x” and “z” — in cursive.

But cursive writing as a whole, while not entirely disappearing, is slowly losing ground in elementary school curricula as technology invades the classroom.

The Common Core Standards, a set of national education standards that have been adopted by most states, including Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, do not specifically require that cursive handwriting be taught in classrooms.

The standards provide for instruction to produce “clear and coherent writing” through planning, revision and editing that is audience- and task-appropriate.

Sarah Potter, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Common Core Standards include keyboarding skills, but as for cursive, “It’s really up to the districts to decide.”

Locally, most districts include cursive, but many administrators say that the specific skill of writing in cursive is declining in importance in a digital era, when students are more tech-savvy than their predecessors and may prefer a computer keyboard to a pencil and paper.

“We do still teach cursive writing,” said Trey Moeller, assistant superintendent in Webb City, where students begin learning cursive as second-graders and continue instruction into the third grade. “And yes, there is a lesser emphasis on the cursive writing and more of an emphasis on the use of technology in the writing process.”

Moeller said the district is not moving away from teaching handwriting altogether, but he acknowledged that technology is “changing the way we communicate, even in written form.”

Grandma’s letters

Carl Junction begins cursive instruction in the second grade, and the skill is reinforced in subsequent years in other language arts lessons, according to Assistant Superintendent Kathy Tackett. But she said the district’s emphasis on cursive has lessened in recent years to make way for digital writing skills.

“We feel like right now, it’s important for kids to continue to know about that (cursive). When they pull up a historical document or a letter from Grandma that’s written in cursive, we want them to be able to read it,” she said. “But most activities as the students get older would be using their keyboarding skills, so I think the focus is more in keyboarding correctly.”

Joplin students also receive instruction in cursive writing beginning in the third grade. Columbia third-grader Kourtnee Wright, 8, said she had been so excited to learn cursive that she remembers asking her second-grade teacher when that instruction started.

“It’s fun because it’s all the loops, and it feels like you’re drawing, and I like drawing,” she said. “I see my mom do it all the time, and I want to write like her.”

Students in every grade level also receive regular instruction in keyboarding and media skills, said Sarah Mwangi, Columbia’s principal.

“We consider this generation our digital natives, and digital natives are immersed with technology, so it’s really a balance,” she said. “We want kids to be able to write on their own; we want kids to be able to understand cursive writing. They’re still going to see that in places. They’re still going to sign their signatures. There’s still a place for it.

“However, I think the focus on handwriting is less important than our kids being able to communicate in various forms. We would be doing our kids a disservice if we only taught them the traditional way of writing.”

Libbie Burd, a third-grade teacher at Columbia, said she focuses mostly on handwriting skills as a communication arts instructor, but the emphasis on media language skills is also there.

“We’re trying to combine them all to help them (the students) communicate effectively,” she said.

‘Computer age’

Kim Satterlee, Wyatt’s mother and president of the Columbia PTO, said that even though her son is “obsessed” with writing in cursive, she supports a balance in the curriculum of handwriting skills and digital writing skills.

“I’d rather see more time be spent with him learning to type because he’s in the computer age,” she said. “Even in third grade, learning how to type is a good idea.”

Joplin’s Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer said the overall skill of learning to write well is more important than the specific skills used to write.

“We’ve developed a Joplin writing model about teaching our students not the explicit skill of how do you make an ‘A,’ but instead a real writing focus about how students get voice in their writing, how students use grammar in their writing,” Besendorfer said. “The ultimate purpose of writing is communication. ...We want kids to think about their ideas and brainstorm about them and work through the editing process.”

A new survey shows Kansas elementary students also are still learning cursive writing but interest in teaching the subject is waning.

The Kansas education department said last week that a survey found 90 percent of the state’s school districts teach cursive writing, generally in third grade.

But nearly 23 percent of those who responded said they don’t consider cursive a high priority. And about 6 percent said they expect to eventually reduce the time spent teaching the subject.

Teachers typically spend from 15 minutes to an hour a day instructing students on cursive script.

State board member Janet Waugh, of Kansas City, said some of her constituents have told her many young people can’t write in cursive or can’t read material written in it.

“I started asking people within school systems,” Waugh said. “Cursive is losing priority because of technology.”

Waugh said she believes it is still important to teach handwriting.

“There are times when you want to leave someone a note, or even write a check, although I guess checks may be going by the wayside, too,” she said.

But board member Sue Storm, of Overland Park, wasn’t optimistic about cursive’s future.

“In the future, they’ll probably use email,” she said.

Mindset shift

There also seems to have been a shift in mindset at the university level, where future teachers are learning how they should instruct their students in handwriting.

Students in the College of Education at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University are instructed in different methods of handwriting, according to Kristi Stuck, an assistant professor. But in recent years, local administrators have been asking professors not to emphasize cursive writing as a standalone activity, but rather as an activity that can be incorporated into writing projects, she said.

“They’re wanting teacher candidates to know about the process of writing through the methods of writing,” she said.

Becky Gallemore, an associate professor in the teacher education department at Missouri Southern State University, said she instructs her students in the same handwriting program that Joplin currently uses. The program teaches “very straightforward letters without lots of curls” that are more functional than the fancier cursive letters of years past, she said.

Gallemore said she has noticed a dual emphasis among educators toward handwriting and technology skills in writing, but said she thinks cursive is still a necessary skill for students to learn.

“What if you don’t have a computer handy and you have to leave a note for your secretary?” she said. “Are you going to print it? It’s going to take you three times as long to print. It’s just much faster to write in cursive than it is to print. And no, you don’t write in cursive or print as much as we did in the past, but you still need that skill.”

It’s a point that Wyatt, the Columbia student, might agree with. Typing is OK, he said, but it takes a lot of practice — and at this point, he just prefers cursive.

“I think writing might be a little bit faster,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.