February 24, 2013

North Carolina bill would bring back cursive lessons

Backers say it helps kids with brain development and motor skills, although critics say that it's a waste of time.

By T. KEUNG HUI and KELLY POE/The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — In the age of texting, tweeting and other technological ways of communicating, North Carolina's elementary school students could soon have to master a more old-fashioned craft: writing in cursive.

Terrie Kim
click image to enlarge

Zoe White practices writing in cursive at St. Mark’s Lutheran School in Hacienda Heights, Calif., in 2012. In North Carolina, a “Back to Basics” bill would once again make cursive handwriting a part of the curriculum in state elementary schools.

2012 File Photo/The Associated Press

A bill introduced in the state House last week would once again make cursive handwriting a part of the curriculum in state elementary schools. The "Back to Basics" bill also would require elementary students to memorize multiplication tables, though state education officials say that's already part of the curriculum.

North Carolina's move to bring back cursive comes at a time when other states from California to Massachusetts also are trying to revive what's become a lost skill.

Traditionalists have bemoaned how cursive has been getting less attention in North Carolina public schools for years, even though it was officially part of the curriculum in grades 3 through 5.

But this school year, cursive supporters became more upset when North Carolina became one of 45 states to implement the "Common Core" standards in language arts and mathematics. Common Core -- aimed at providing uniformity in what's being taught in classrooms nationally -- doesn't mention cursive.

The elimination of cursive as a part of North Carolina's curriculum made Page 1 of The Wall Street Journal last month.

"Every child should know cursive," said Republican state Rep. Pat Hurley, a primary sponsor of the bill. "Our children can't write a simple sentence. They think printing their name is their signature."

But others see teaching cursive as a waste of time.

James Cunningham, a retired University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor and former director of literary studies, said teaching manuscript -- or print -- handwriting make more sense for the modern world.

"The research says that adults who write manuscript, they write just as quickly as adults who write everything in cursive, but it's more legible," Cunningham said. "It's just a simple matter that there aren't any advantages to cursive handwriting."

Hurley disagrees. She said learning cursive helps children with their brain development and motor skills. And she thinks it aids students in reading documents such as the Declaration of Independence or simply letters from an older relative.

State Rep. Chris Malone, one of the bill's sponsors, said teaching cursive makes students more well-rounded, both in terms of disciplining them to learn it and in helping them express their creative side.

"It lends to our humanity to know cursive," said Malone, a Republican who was a Wake County, N.C., school board member until January.

Maria Pitre-Martin, director of K-12 curriculum and technology for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the Common Core standards don't explicitly prevent schools from teaching cursive. But she said the state doesn't know how many school districts still teach the skill.

The backlash over the lack of cursive in Common Core has resulted in California, Georgia and Massachusetts reinstituting cursive as a requirement. Such legislation is being considered in Indiana and Idaho.

Hurley's bill, which would go into effect next fall if approved, says that public schools should be required "to provide instruction in cursive writing so that students create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade."

"It's not going to be inappropriate for students to learn something we learned, and be able to stay connected with their grandparents," Hurley said, adding that she became interested in writing the bill after noticing that all the letters she got from children were written in manuscript.

After checking, Hurley said, she found that private schools and charter schools, but not traditional public schools, regularly teach cursive.

Third-graders spend 20 minutes a day learning cursive handwriting at Franklin Academy, a charter school in Wake Forest, N.C., said Denise Kent, the head K-8 administrator. In grades 4-7, she said, students are expected to write in cursive for at least one assignment a day.

Charter schools are public schools, so they also follow the Common Core. But Kent said the school felt it was important to make time each day for cursive.

"We understand that we're in the 21st century and that they've got to learn to use technology skills, but there are a lot of studies that show it helps to learn cursive," she said.

But Cunningham, the retired professor, said lawmakers should be "spending their time on something that really matters" instead of requiring cursive.

"I think manuscript handwriting is superior as a system for teaching children because then the letters they write look more like letters in books that they learn to read," he said. "If you pick up a book to try to read it, it is almost never written in anything vaguely similar to cursive handwriting."

 

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