Cursive writing, once the anticipated instruction of third-grade penmanship that signaled upper-grade work, has been on the wane as schools move toward keyboard communication. In a tech town like Seattle, where some schools teach with laptops, without textbooks, using online assignments, does cursive writing instruction still have a place?
In Washington, cursive is taught at the discretion of individual teachers or districts, often just once a week during third grade for part of the year. At Catholic schools and Waldorf schools, as well as some Montessori programs, cursive is ingrained in the traditional program and is taught much more widely. State Sen. Pam Roach sponsored a cursive bill in 2016, but to little effect. (In Alabama, Arizona and North Carolina, cursive instruction recently became law.)
At Bryant Elementary in Ravenna, there was talk of starting an afterschool cursive writing program through Uplift Tutoring.
“What I see in a lot in young people, parents will say, ‘They’re really struggling with writing. Oh, they have lots of ideas, they can tell you a story, but they can’t write it.’ And one of my first questions is, ‘How is their handwriting?’” says Uplift’s co-owner, Julianna Batho.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Uplift Writing, located in the Bryant neighborhood of Seattle, offers “Cursive Camp” on Thursday afternoons.
In her own experience, some kids just can’t succeed in getting words on paper until cursive is taught. She recalls what she saw with her own son, who was struggling to write:
“We taught him cursive and off he went! It broke down this barrier for him, and I did some more research on that and there are a lot of children … they actually think differently, and their brain operates differently, where the cursive made a huge difference.”
Joan Lite Miller, a calligrapher who has also studied various methods of cursive instruction, agrees. “If they’re trained in it, there’s that automaticity in forming the letters, there’s a smoothness in terms of knowing how to write letters, connecting them,” she says. “They can go to their ideas.”
Cursive writing used to be part of the standard education curriculum, a writing style meant to make handwriting uniform, so that everybody could read each other’s script. Some still value the idea of good, old-fashioned writing practice, and say it’s an important component of learning.
Cursive is seen so seldom in schoolwork that Seattle parents are left wondering if it has been introduced at all.
“I don’t think they’ve learned cursive,” says Suman Jayadev, a Northeast Seattle mom of two kids in public school. “I’d be happy if they did.”
“I fear that just using a keyboard influences the way their brains think and develop,” she says.
Without practice writing cursive, kids can’t read it either.
Ravenna mom Becky Mackle worked with her boys, ages 12 and 14, to make sure they could write their own signatures.
“Both boys can make out some cursive, but not all words, when reading,” says Mackle. Their public school cursive instruction was limited to learning how to form the letters and “almost no time practicing writing words and sentences.”
She points out that her kids’ printing isn’t great, either, likely due to a lack of practice in the classroom, and that instruction in typing has been insufficient as well:
“I feel very let down by the system, that they let handwriting slip through the cracks in early elementary school.”
Vicki Nelson of The Write Grip, an occupational therapist based in Edmonds who specializes in handwriting, believes the decline in cursive instruction is related to earlier academic study for young kids instead of some of the traditional, hand-strengthening play kids used to do, such as mashing clay and playing with tiles and blocks.
“Pushing kids to write earlier and earlier in preschool, and even in kindergarten, as the American school system is now, the hand development that kids need is not happening,” says Nelson.
“A lot of educators were seeing kids become less and less successful with cursive when they were trying to teach it, and so because of that, I think handwriting in general has become more challenging, and people have pushed a lot to keyboarding.”
But does this matter? Won’t all kids eventually be taking notes on laptops and tablets by the time they’re in high school or college? In a New York Times opinion piece last year, Pace University law school professor Darren Rosenblum proclaimed that he was banning laptops in the classroom, not just because of the distraction level, but because some research has shown that humans retain information better when they write it down.
A move to cursive classes isn’t just happening at Bryant Elementary. The Washington Post reports that kids in Connecticut are doing it for fun, and had a blast scribbling away at a summertime cursive camp this year.
The company Learning Without Tears was born out of a mom’s effort to use her occupational therapy expertise to help with her child’s handwriting struggles. It’s conducting workshops for teachers Oct. 26-27 in Federal Way on both writing readiness and cursive.
It seems that cursive fans are speaking out. Perhaps camps for avid spellers and sentence diagrammers can’t be far behind.