North Carolina lawmakers pushed back against Common Core education standards by passing legislation to require the teaching of cursive handwriting in elementary schools. But some education observers question whether teachers are prepared to teach the course, and if schools are placing appropriate rigor on implementing the mandate.
“Just because it’s a law doesn’t mean the students are necessarily getting the skills to make it a functional life skill. I think from my understanding that is the concern” among some educators, said Denise Donica of Winterville, an occupational therapist who teaches occupational therapy students at East Carolina University.
Donica, who also is an instructor with Handwriting Without Tears, an organization that trains teachers, parents, other therapists, “and anyone interested” to help students develop cursive writing skills, also wonders whether enough classroom resources are available for handwriting teachers.
“I can only imagine what it’s like to be a teacher and be [told], ‘There’s this new law, and next year you have to teach cursive handwriting,’ and you haven’t been trained how to teach it, or if you don’t use it because the kids haven’t learned it before,” Donica said.
In 2013, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, the state House and Senate passed House Bill 146, the Back to Basics act. It requires all students to receive instruction in cursive writing with the goal that they can “create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade.”
“Regrettably, the authors of the Common Core’s English language arts standards failed to include a cursive writing requirement. Nevertheless, it is making a comeback,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
North Carolina and six other states have added a cursive writing component. Stoops said many more have introduced legislation requiring cursive instruction in elementary schools. A number of schools and school districts have added it to their language arts curricula in lieu of a statewide mandate.
“Given that the cursive writing requirement has been in place since 2013, we would expect that North Carolina’s education schools would provide some type of cursive instruction for all prospective elementary school teachers,” Stoops said. “Additionally, we would also expect the state’s school districts to provide relevant professional development for those already in the profession.”
In 2008, shortly after moving to North Carolina, Donica and her East Carolina students surveyed the state’s teachers to determine if they were taught cursive instruction.
“The majority of the teachers indicated they had not learned how to teach handwriting at all, cursive or print, and [many of those who had] learned after they got out of school, [with] continuing ed courses, and things like that,” Donica said.
She was shocked that North Carolina did not have that support system for education students or teachers. Her surprise was compounded when her husband took courses as a community college and brought much younger classmates to their home for study groups.
One North Carolina native and military veteran in his 20s told her he never learned to write cursive, and never learned to sign his name. So when he enlisted and was ordered to sign the forms, “he made it up on the spot,” Donica said. “He did not know how some of the letters change when you’re writing in cursive.”
Donica partially blames ever-expanding technology. As a 21st century emphasis in school instruction shifts from cursive handwriting to punching out words on an electronic keyboard, Donica says it is time to slow down and evaluate the impact on students.
Using high-tech devices “is a critical skill in our culture, but so is writing,” Donica said. “Some teachers are very strong advocates for cursive writing continuing, [while] others believe that keyboarding should replace it.”
“Efforts to restore cursive instruction are not attempts to return to a bygone era of American education. Rather, they are a recognition that handwriting plays a critical role in brain development, particularly for young children,” Stoops said.
“Research suggests that handwriting may improve students’ hand-eye coordination, visual scanning skills, and idea development. Other studies suggest that handwriting may curb the effects of dyslexia and dysgraphia,” Stoops said.
There are other practical drawbacks of not knowing how to read and write in cursive, such as deciphering historical documents, or reading handwritten birthday and greeting cards from older people, Donica said. Some studies have shown that students trained in cursive do better on SAT exams than those who are not, and students struggling in class with printed writing sometimes improve markedly when they learn cursive.
Donica said one of her favorite examples of why cursive handwriting is critical in an age of keyboard technology is comparing it to the need to understand basic mathematics even though calculators are ubiquitous.
“It’s still important to know that basic understanding of how math concepts work” when determining how much change should be returned after making a cash purchase at a store, Donica said. Customers do the math in their head; they don’t pull out a calculator to double check that they received the correct amount.
“Handwriting is the same way. We need to be able to understand the way to communicate in written language,” Donica said, “and frankly most of the world is not as advanced as we are, so handwriting is a very important skill.”