- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

Like 8-track tapes, Atari video games and the rotary-dial phone, cursive writing may soon become a casualty of technological advance, as the word processor squeezes penmanship lessons from schools nationwide.

Learning the loops of cursive writing might seem like a waste of time to students and teachers who are accustomed to the computer as the principal tool of communication. The National Cursive Handwriting

Test — a 75-year-old tradition — recently was canceled because of a lack of entries. But educators say cursive writing is a communication tool that deserves to be upheld in elementary schools today.

Students still need to know how to communicate effectively through good handwriting skills, said Charles B. Pyle, director of communication at the Virginia State Department of Education.

“There will still be occasions when students need to express themselves with pen and paper, and what they write should be read and understood without a lot of difficulty,” he said.

Both Maryland and Virginia’s state curriculum for elementary schools indicate that, by second grade, students should begin making the transition to cursive writing, using connecting strokes to write continuous text. By third grade, students are expected to write legibly in cursive, moving from the instruction level in the classroom to a more independent level.

“The long-term goal is to develop neat, legible and rapid handwriting,” Mr. Pyle said. “Our standards don’t emphasize a method, but expect an outcome.”

Advocates say teaching penmanship has benefits, citing research evidence of a direct link between the process of learning to write and developing the ability to read fluently.

“Cursive writing itself was developed because connected strokes help create a continuous stream of writing,” said Dixie Stack, director of curriculum at Maryland State Department of Education. “When you first look at cursive writing, it’s like trying to interpret a foreign language. Working at it — and practicing it yourself — though, helps you to read it.”

Roger Vanderhye, principal of Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean, said cursive writing is “not a lost art quite yet.”

“We still believe that fluid writing leads itself to thinking … we’ve seen that students’ ideas start to flow better when they learn cursive,” he said.

Heidi Hogan, reading and writing specialist at Spring Hill, agrees.

“Keyboarding hasn’t replaced cursive,” Mrs. Hogan said. “Even with technological developments, we still feel it’s important for students to know how to write. Most children actually enjoy cursive … they see it as a rite of passage or a ‘grown-up thing to do.’”

The process also helps students who have problems with reversed letters in their handwriting.

“Once students make the transition to cursive, they don’t make the same kind of mistakes,” Mrs. Hogan said.

Some say reliance on computers is hurting the art of penmanship, however. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 90 percent of Americans children ages 5 to 17 use computers.

Charles Trafford, chief executive of Peterson Directed Handwriting, a Pennsylvania-based instruction company that sponsored the recently canceled cursive writing contest, said he was appalled by the quality of entries that he received from teachers across the country who felt the entries were examples of good handwriting.

“We had thousands of teachers sending in handwriting samples that could only be described as garbage,” he said. “They were just terrible.”

Teacher-education programs might be one cause, instructors say, because minimal time is spent teaching cursive to future teachers.

“There’s just so much content to be taught to future educators that cursive writing is simply not emphasized in teacher education,” said Patricia Young, assistant elementary-education professor at the University of Maryland.

More emphasis is placed on using the computer as a tool to aid the writing process, ultimately placing more emphasis on what students are writing, rather than how they are writing it, Mrs. Young said.

“We’re simply evolving in terms of education … . We have a more contemporary tool in computer technology, and we’re using that to develop a child’s writing.”

Rosa Trapp-Dail, chairman of the elementary-education department of curriculum and instruction at Howard University, said she doesn’t want the university students to be overly dependent on technology, though.

“Writing is one of the ways you influence the acquisition of early literary skills to children,” she said. “Computers have begun to share significance. But few urban classrooms have computers for every student … penmanship is a conceptual, hand-eye coordination skill, which also needs to be a part of learning.”

Mrs. Young suggests that handwriting basics need to be taught alongside computer technology.

“When students submit an exam, it’ll be handwritten,” she said. “Penmanship and computer skills, therefore, need to run side by side.”

Even the SAT college-admissions test still requires each student, at the end of the test, to copy several paragraphs stating that he or she did not cheat.

Rather than simply signing a written statement, students are asked to write out the paragraphs so that the College Board — which gives the test — has a copy of the student’s handwriting in case verification of the student’s handwriting is needed later.

Some educators say that the problem with teaching cursive writing today is that it tends to come behind other curriculum priorities, such as preparation for standardized tests. Others blame it on the American culture as a whole.

“We just don’t emphasize the importance of handwriting as a culture,” said Gail McEachron, a professor at the College of William & Mary. “In England, there is a much bigger emphasis placed on penmanship … in India and Great Britain, they don’t have as much in technological uses, so more pride is taken in one’s written work and how it is conveyed.”

Although the future of cursive writing is not known, some say there will always be value in learning the old-fashioned art. James Beers, reading and language-arts professor at the College of William & Mary, said that although penmanship may be declining, it’s not going to disappear.

“Not all forms can be filled out online. Many must be done by hand,” Mr. Beers said. “And, even though more and more people are using e-mail to communicate with each other, there’s still much value to the personal letter … and that will never go away.”

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