BY JAMIE LOBER
Central Georgia families may take pride in their child’s penmanship. Block lettering is introduced early, but cursive is not a mandatory part of the curriculum. “Language conventions deal with understanding and using written language in all of its forms. “In third and fourth grade, the language convention is to write legibly in cursive, leaving space between letters in a word and words in sentences,” says Kim Jeffcoat, k12 education program specialist in literacy at Georgia Department of Education. The state recommends but does not endorse any programs, but rather leaves it up to the individual schools and teachers. According to the Georgia Department of Education, students take a state writing assessment at various grade levels and are given a choice of whether they choose to print or use cursive. “We recognize that cursive is a skill that is important in the long-range plan of everything,” reinforces Jeffcoat.
Educators do not agree on the longevity of cursive. Some introduce technology early while others give students an option on how to submit their work. “It is interesting that even our youngest ones in pre-kindergarten classes are given exposure to the computer. They start extremely early, so in a way, that is wonderful but in a way, there is not as much focus on the actual written word because there are a lot of things done on the computer,” expresses Dr. Dee Stanfield, occupational therapist with Bibb County Board of Education.
It is not one of the official Georgia performance standards but we consider it to be very important,” says Nancy Richardson, reading and language arts coordinator with Houston County Board of Education in Warner Robins. Still, some teachers embrace penmanship. “Cursive is introduced at the end of second grade and then instruction is reviewed and continued in third grade,” explains Richardson. The reason cursive is presented at this time is because although it is not a standard, it falls in the area of language conventions set forth by the Georgia Department of Education.
“As in Houston County, Bibb teaches cursive at the end of second grade and in third grade,” states Suzanne Spaid, Bibb County’s Coordinator of School Improvement Language Arts. “Cursive writing does not receive the amount of attention it did several generations ago when beautiful penmanship was valued. We have moved to a generation which values high speed communication. Even in elementary school, students text messages which has it own language of abbreviations.”
Cursive Falling on the Curriculum
While there is no doubt that cursive is an important skill, it may be easily overshadowed by other topics. “It is very much low on the totem pole of what is on the curriculum,” says Stanfield. For some students, cursive is taught too early. “A lot of the curriculum is based on getting the kids to write and express themselves but developmentally the proper grasp is not developed until the child is about five or six,” informs Stanfield.
Educators try to prepare students for cursive by targeted play or educational activities that are found enjoyable and meet specific developmental goals. These foster readiness to practice new skills and enthusiasm toward learning. “They really need to be doing more manipulative play activities with their fingers and hands to get the muscles strong and develop the coordination to hold the pencil correctly,” says Stanfield. Sometimes busy schedules alone may interfere with cursive playing a part in the school day because educators have so many other subject areas to cover. “In most schools there is not a lot of time to focus on handwriting because the teacher has so many other things she has to do,” explains Stanfield.
Making Room for Cursive
Still, Houston County educators know its value. “A committee agreed that handwriting was very important and needed attention so they worked to develop guidelines. We looked at the Georgia performance standards, considered the grade level expectations and tried to align those recommendations. We were looking at ways to incorporate handwriting into our existing literacy framework,” shares Richardson. Covenant Academy is one private school in Bibb County that has placed value on cursive. “We connect our handwriting skills with our intensive phonics program by using The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking from the Riggs Institute,” says Eric Freel, principal at Covenant Academy. Freel describes fine motor skill development as a centerpiece to cursive writing and elects for his teachers to begin instruction on cursive early. “We will start cursive in the latter part of the second grade and continue to sharpen their skills through third grade,” says Freel.
It is predicted that the use of technology, including for administration of standardized tests, will grow. “The only standard that really addresses handwriting is that your child will be able to write legibly,” says Richardson. Educators do not display a preference of cursive over block letters. “In many cases the students have a choice in submitting either handwritten documents or typed or computer-generated,” says Richardson.
The handwriting program used at school is the teacher’s choice. The Georgia Department of Education recommends several learning programs including Dr. Cupp Readers and Journal Writers, Handwriting without Tears and D’Nealian Handwriting. These recognize where a child should be developmentally. For example, Handwriting without Tears teaches pre-printing, printing, and then cursive. Children that are typically developing as well as children with developmental delays are most commonly getting started with this program. Area private schools such as Stratford Academy use this method in their lower school curriculum.
“It is an excellent program that uses wooden sticks. If you were going to make the capital letter ‘T,’ you would have a big stick and a little stick and I would tell them a story like ‘this is Mr. T,’” describes Stanfield. Then, children move to the chalkboard. “We call it wet, dry, try. They have a tiny sponge that is only big enough for your thumb and first two fingers to pick up. It helps develop those small muscles and to learn the proper grasp,” says Stanfield. You make the letter on the chalkboard with the water from the sponge, dry it and then try it with chalk. “Kids learn so much better when you involve all of their senses so it is a great program,” feels Stanfield.
For the shift to cursive, students are using a program called Loops and Groups. “The program develops the letters in terms of the different groups of letters. Some require loops while some require that they hang down and it is grouped in a different sequence,” says Stanfield. Some children enjoy the program while others do not. “It is not as much fun and is more practice-based, but they learn certain letters together. Once you can make the b and d, you can make the g because they are similar strokes,” states Stanfield.
Reasons to Favor Cursive
The ability to both write and read cursive is a distinctive part of literacy. The lack of this ability shuts off a whole realm of communication to students, e.g., reading grandmother’s letters or even reading everyday longhand communication. The inability to fluently write in cursive also inhibits proper notetaking in lectures. Finally, there is a large body of research that shows that the right kind of handwriting lesson offers the kind of motor-learning activity that stimulates the brain to build pathways for better reading, writing, and even keyboarding.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld in his article, “Association Method—Cursive” makes another excellent point when he says, “Another important benefit of cursive is that it helps the child learn to spell correctly since the hand acquires knowledge of spelling patterns through hand movements that are used again and again in spelling. This is the same phenomenon that occurs when pianists or typists learn patterns of hand movements through continued repetition.” The bottom line is that if school systems are concerned about the performance of highschoolers on writing tests today, wait until students who have not been taught cursive well reach highschool.
It is important to learn cursive because it fosters critical thinking skills. “To learn how to think and to learn how to write go together,” affirms Eric Freel, principal at Covenant Academy. Whether your child is writing a story to share at home or a letter to a friend at summer camp, it is important that he learns how to write legibly so he can be understood. Cursive will also come in handy when he grows up and has to perform daily tasks such as signing receipts in a store. “The importance of cursive in the modern world is to be able to sign your name,” says Jeffcoat. Cursive also fosters left to right sequencing.
Educators vouch that once kids learn cursive, they may even like it. Special adaptations can be added to make cursive more fun. “Pencil grips are simple and help them hold the pencil better. There are so many different kinds you can buy at a regular pharmacy or an occupational therapist can help you. There is specially designed paper that has highlighted lines for top and bottom,” exemplifies Stanfield.
Giving Your Child a Boost
Cursive requires patience and it is important to recognize when your child may be struggling. “Some kids have a hard time understanding the difference between the b and the d. There are a variety of tests to figure out if it is a motor issue or because of coordination or strength of the hand or because they are visually impaired and do not understand,” says Stanfield.
Cursive and Special Needs
Although some believe that computers are overriding the need for mastering good handwriting, some educators are promoting computers in order to meet special needs. “We will help transition some of the severe kids that have a very hard time to word processing instead of using a pencil because some of the kids who have difficulty writing are great on the computer,” says Stanfield. There is no one rule. “You have to look at the individual child and really figure out what will meet their needs the best,” reinforces Stanfield.
Supporting Cursive at Home
Fun activities can improve your child’s fine motor skills which include his ability to write in cursive. “Playing jacks is great for coordination, for example, says Stanfield. “I also get them to juggle with scarves because that is great for eye-hand coordination. I hide pennies and tiny beads in putty and they have to find them which prepare the hand for writing.” Just like an athlete stretches and lifts weights in order to perform well in a game, a child’s hands and fingers require the same attention for success in developing legible cursive. Rote practice is not the only preparation.
A love of writing does not form overnight. You really can prepare your child to be a cursive pro through a little extra enrichment and activities at an early age. “We use the Your Baby Can Read program with our year and a half to two-year-olds to interest children,” says Margie Berry of Bright Star Learning Center. The written word, picture, and body movement encased in the program enforce the idea that the more ways that information can be represented, the more connections are made in the brain. The more connections, the firmer the learning foundation. This makes for an easier step from the printed word to cursive handwriting.
The best thing you can do as a parent is to provide an environment where writing is valued and let your child see you writing instead of on the computer all the time. Remember that children often imitate what they see and you are the model.