01/07/13 — A dying skill? Not just yet.

View Archive

A dying skill? Not just yet.

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 7, 2013 1:46 PM

Full Size


Eastern Wayne Elementary School third-grader Malik Brehon-Austin, 8, practices his cursive writing during a lesson in Nicole Jackson's class. Students spent the class period learning proper writing techniques and practicing writing the alphabet in cursive.

Full Size


Eastern Wayne Elementary School third-grader Logan Campbell, 10, uses his finger to draw out a cursive "w" in the air. Students practice the letters in a variety of ways in addition to the traditional pen and paper approach.

As educators scramble to keep pace with rapidly changing technology, many school districts are trading in pencil and paper for a keyboard or hand-held device.

One of the potential casualties has been cursive writing -- the oft-anticipated rite of passage for third-graders everywhere.

Nicole Jackson, a third-grade teacher at Eastern Wayne Elementary School, has come to expect it at the start of each school year.

"Third grade is the first grade that they teach it," she said. "They're so excited about it when they get to me."

Kylee Adams, a third-grade student at Rosewood Elementary School, has an older sibling so she already had a glimpse into what awaited her.

When actually faced with committing pencil to paper, though, it was "harder and easier" than expected, she said.

"The hardest part was lower case 'z'," she said.

Kylee said she enjoyed the process of mastering the newfound skill.

Thinking a moment, she summed up the biggest advantage for acquiring the technique -- "I learned that cursive writing can help you with writing."

Her mother, Anne Adams, teaches third grade at North Drive Elementary School. She can recall those first months her own children learned to write in cursive, when they practiced "like, 30 minutes a day."

Shawna Skinner, a third-grade teacher at North Drive Elementary, chooses to turn the lesson into a fun activity, putting shaving cream on a paper plate and instructing her students to use their fingers to outline the letters.

"Then we go into actually connecting it," she said. "I actually like to spend the first half of the year doing the letters. After Christmas, we (start writing) spelling words."

Mrs. Jackson uses the white board in class to demonstrate. She said she prefers to group letters together by the way they are formed, like the "e" then the "b," "i" and "t," for example, as they all basically start out with an "under curve."

While other school districts have weighed whether to continue teaching cursive writing -- time constraints and technology were most often cited as reasons to shelve it -- Wayne County Public Schools never wavered on its stance.

"Wayne County third-grade teachers will be teaching cursive writing," said Hope Meyerhoeffer, director of the English and language arts programs. "It has been placed on the curriculum map standards for writing and most of our teachers, as I peruse the different schools, it seems teachers had curriculum writing everywhere, showing just how well the children were progressing. So that's a skill for writing that we do not want to drop."

Local teachers said that the technique should not become a lost art, even if the national debate suggests otherwise.

"It helps them with fine motor skills, which is one reason we need to keep it," Mrs. Adams said. "Some struggle with a pencil. I've had to actually hold their hands, get them used to it."

Kim Richter Smith, a veteran English teacher of juniors and seniors at Eastern Wayne High School, views it from the other end of the spectrum.

"When they come to us in high school, I think what we deal with is we see them stressed out when they have to write things out, like on the SAT," she said. "In France, they teach cursive before they teach the block print, supposedly because it's easier."

Mrs. Jackson said the potential problem extends beyond the ability to master the skill.

"I had a student come to me with a book that had cursive," she said. "How's this child going to read without it? They need to be able to read it as well as write it."

Sara McLamb, a 10th-grade English teacher at Rosewood High School, put it more succinctly -- basic life skills.

"You need to be able to write a thank you note, be able to sign your name," she said. "That's a basic life skill that you need."

Mrs. Smith said there are studies to back up the relevance of cursive instruction even in a digital age.

"It increased reading speed because you're writing faster, you can process," she said. "And brain development, on students that took the SAT, students that wrote in cursive did 15 percent better than the ones that wrote in block.

"I have heard a lot of reasons to keep it and I have heard no good reason to drop it. I'm not sure why there's a debate over it but I think it's a wonderful position for Wayne County to stand by."

"A lot of people have said, why do they need to write in cursive, they're just going to do it on the computer," Mrs. Jackson said.

"As far as I know, college students use Blue Books for exams," Mrs. Smith said.

It would take too long to print out all the answers on that, Mrs. Jackson agreed.

Mrs. Smith pointed out that even the best and brightest struggle if they haven't learned the concept. She recalled several years ago when some of her AP, advanced placement, students were "having anxiety" at exam time, but not because they were unprepared for the questions.

"Those were smart kids. They just didn't get (cursive writing) somewhere," she recalled. "How can you print on the writing section? You have to figure out a way."

"I had students, they had to try to make their print look scroll-y," said Ms. McLamb.

Whatever the reason -- from signing legal documents to leaving a note for someone -- the educators agree they prefer not to see cursive writing become obsolete.

"I just think it's sad," said Ms. McLamb. "It's a lost art to be able to write and use cursive."

"You know how when you find a favorite pen and it just seems good when you have your favorite stationary?" said Mrs. Smith. "It just feels good."

Technology can always fail, she said. So having the capability to write should never go out of style.

"I think it's a lot like your own fingerprint," she said. "That's your identity."