By Sedonna Prater, Director, Curriculum and Instruction for the Knoxville Diocese Catholic Schools
Imagine for a moment a visit to our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. As you and your children meander through the Rotunda of the National Archives Building, you follow the majority of the visitors to view the great Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When you reach them and your eyes are finally upon those glorious, patriotic documents with their elegant lines of artistic penmanship, you glance over to see your sixth grade student staring vacantly.
It may take a few moments of mental cogitation, but the dawn of realization may surprise you to recognize that your student cannot read the cursive writing of the documents that establish our country’s values and provide the basis for our government. While this may seem like an unlikely scenario, the reality is with the digital age and the emphasis on digital literacy, the art of handwriting and in particular cursive handwriting has fallen out of practice in our schools.
Writing, or having the ability to communicate, expressing thoughts and feelings, through symbols, has historically always been an indication of literacy. Being a literate society requires one to be able to read and understand the meaning attached to these symbols, as well as, to be able to produce them.
Cursive writing was developed into the more artistic form during the Renaissance, around the 14th century, and was the common writing practice for the literate, nobility and educated of society
for centuries. Manuscript writing was brought to the U.S. from England in the early 1920’s by Marjorie Wise, a specialist in teaching handwriting. It was thought at the time that it would be easier for children to read and learn if they were more familiar with the type of print found in books (Zaner-Bloser, 2003). A few years following the emphasis on manuscript, educators felt that manuscript was not an acceptable ‘adult’ form of writing and returned the emphasis to the cursive handwriting prevalent during the 19th century. If anyone has a relative who attended school during the late 1920’s through the 1950’s, one will note the beautiful, stylistic handwriting taught.
While handwriting is more than just beautiful penmanship—it is a mark of literacy, it is understandable why the emphasis has decreased in recent years. Educators are concerned about making the most out of their schedule and focusing on priorities to meet changing standards and standardized assessment objectives. They are also very aware that they must prepare students to be able to navigate in this technological/digital age. However, educators and parents alike should not underestimate the benefits of writing. Handwriting teaches fine-motor dexterity, attention to detail, and there is evidence that legible handwriting actually promotes improved composition (Berninger et al., 1997).
When the construction of letters becomes automatic and fluid, students have the ability to concentrate on the expression of actual meaning within the composition. This can also be said with the use of a keyboard, however, there is something that happens to increase learning kinesthetically between the hand and the brain, similar to an imprint, when one writes that is not quite the same as when one types. Legible handwriting is also a mark held in great esteem by educators assessing writing assignments, standardized test evaluators who have to read written compositions, and future employers.
When the construction of letters becomes automatic and fluid, students have the ability to concentrate on the expression of actual meaning within the composition.
The State of Tennessee School Board at their July meeting voted approval of a preliminary policy to implement cursive writing standards for grades kindergarten through grade four. This will be presented for a final vote in October. While the School Board should be applauded for this initiative, educators and parents must remember that to fully perfect cursive, it must be emphasized beyond fourth grade.
Focus on handwriting with your child by encouraging them to practice the rote exercises of manuscript or cursive, as developmentally appropriate, at least ten minutes a day. As they progress, encourage them to cursive handwrite letters to relatives, grocery lists, notes, homework assignments, and any other writing opportunities. Many students continue to print simply because they have not had enough practice in cursive, and it is easier. Consider cursive an important skill this year!