The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Local Schools

April 6, 2013

Cursive less prominent in area schools

New curriculum standards mean students face a less stringent lesson

CLINTON — Chloe Holm can't wait to learn cursive.

The 8-year-old second-grade student at Eagle Heights Elementary School counts writing among her favorite activities.

She's eager to add cursive to her writing repertoire that currently includes printing and typing.

"It's different because the lines are squiggly," she said. "I like to write stories about mystery. I'm excited to learn a new way to write."

Second-grade students across the Clinton Community School District start learning cursive in the beginning of April. While previous generations of students have worked to master the winding cursive alphabet, new curriculum standards mean current students face a less stringent cursive lesson.

Related: Cursive writing at risk in U.S. schools

"It's not necessarily how they write, but what they write," Barb Rhoades, reading support teacher at Eagle Heights, said. "It's not what it looks like, it's what it says. We want to make sure they are effective, efficient communicators."

Iowa and Illinois are two of 45 states to have adopted the Common Core State Standards for English, which is silent on cursive writing and penmanship. Instead, the Core focuses on students' ability to communicate, not how they write.  

"When you go to college are you going to cut the mustard with good penmanship or effective communication?" Rhoades asked.

The Core requires students to be able to print many upper and lower case letters in kindergarten and all upper and lower case letters in first grade. Beyond that, the Core is silent on handwriting instruction. 

The Core does require students to have a command of keyboarding skills so they can type a one-page assignment by third grade, causing a debate among educators about the fate of penmanship among the nation's youths.

The Clinton School District still teaches cursive, but to a lesser degree than it has in the past, according to Curriculum Director John Jorgensen.

The district uses a system to teach cursive writing to students called D’Nealean Handwriting. Using the D’Nealean approach, students in kindergarten and first grade are taught to make printed letters in a way that eases their transition to cursive writing.

Cursive is then introduced to students in second grade and reinforced in the following grades. Students in kindergarten through second grade generally spend no more than 15 minutes three to four times a week doing practice activities.  

"Our intention is for students to continue practicing their writing, whether in print or cursive, while engaged in more purposeful or authentic writing activities," Jorgensen said.

"Kids have to write. I don't see a day where we put a computer in front of a kindergartener," he added. "But we focus more on authentically doing writing to communicate."  

With the rise of cell phones, computers, smart boards and other technology, cursive has been overshadowed by the keyboard.

Related: Education goals stress keyboarding - not cursive

"As a district, we wrestle with trying to foresee what communication skills students will need as they go through school and into college and careers," Jorgensen said. "To be sure, students will probably always need to be able to communicate by pencil or pen, but to a far less degree than they have in the past. Because of this, we give considerable time to develop students’ skill in communicating in digital formats."

The district focuses more on legible writing than on the art of penmanship because officials are open to legible writing in the form of cursive, print or type. Still, with the increase in technology, the keyboard has taken a more prominent role in teaching students to communicate.  

"What time would have been spent in the past on penmanship is now spent on helping students learning and using digital communication skills, especially keyboarding," Jorgensen said.   

On top of the shift in methods of communication, the amount of time students dedicate to mastering penmanship also played a role in its decline.

Jorgensen pointed to estimations made by noted educational leader Robert Marzano regarding the amount of time it would take for a student to learn and master everything expected of them during their K-12 experience.  Marzano estimated it would take 20 years versus the allotted 13.  As a means to reduce the overwhelming amount of content taught, the Iowa Core left cursive, among other things, out.  

The Clinton School District is not alone in its approach to shifting the focus off of cursive and penmanship. Students attending Camanche would find similar lessons on cursive writing, according to Camanche School District Superintendent Tom Parker.

"We still teach cursive, but it's not taught as extensively as most adults would probably remember," Parker said.

Parker said the district focuses on communicating, but they have shifted away from stressing that communication being in cursive or in printed handwriting in response to the increased use of technology.  

"I truly think that's a sign of the times. With all of the technology available to today's generation, they use Facebook, text messages and e-mail. Their form of communication is rarely through cursive writing," he said. 

Cursive writing still has value, Parker said. The fancier alphabet still has a place on personal notes and signatures, but the frequency with which it's used has been noticeably less.

Riverbend School District Superintendent Chuck Holliday said his students are introduced to cursive writing in third grade and the skill is refined in the following elementary years. As Clinton and Camanche, River Bend students aren't evaluated on the swirls of the upper case cursive 'G' but their ability to convey their message.    

"It's not an issue we invest great amounts of time in," Holiday said. "Our purpose is to have students effectively communicating in writing, which is more and more done using technology."  

While the rise in technology has decreased the prevalence of cursive in classrooms, it hasn't been at the expense of the students' experience, Rhoades said. Instead, it's opened more options by allowing students to communicate through print, cursive or the keyboard.  

"Technology aids in the way our students can share their understanding," she said. "If we empower them with choice, they're more inclined to share what they're learning."

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