Cursive handwriting no longer stressed at Eastern Iowa schools

Carly Madsen, works on her penmanship on Sept. 14, 2005. Schools still teach kids to make their handwriting beautiful, b
Carly Madsen, works on her penmanship on Sept. 14, 2005. Schools still teach kids to make their handwriting beautiful, but it may not be practical in a world of keyboards. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Gary Fandel)

Shelby Donohoe loves writing her cursive signature.

“I practice that a lot,” Shelby, 9, said.

She practices cursive writing in general, although most of her practice is at home instead of school.

“We did a lot at the beginning of the school year,” Shelby, a fourth-grader at Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty, said. “We’d have work sheets with letters and sentences that we’d use.”

But that tapered off as the year progressed. Unless Shelby’s teacher specifically asks that an assignment be completed with cursive handwriting, she said the students can choose cursive or manuscript.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s the emphasis on cursive handwriting today that there was when I was in school,” said Lisa Donohoe, Shelby’s mom.

With SmartBoards and laptops, it’s easy to see why cursive handwriting has fallen by the wayside, although educators stress not all the way.

“We do have a curriculum for cursive handwriting as part of our SLEs (Student Learning Expectations),” said Mary Ellen Maske, executive administrator for elementary education for the Cedar Rapids school district.

The district uses the Zaner-Bloser Handwriting curriculum, which introduces cursive handwriting in third grade, and practice in fourth and fifth grades.

The goal is 10 to 15 minutes of cursive handwriting instruction each day, according to Beth Olthoff, the district’s language arts/Title I facilitator, although it isn’t necessary classified as handwriting instruction.

Students may complete an assignment that teachers ask be written in cursive handwriting, or write their spelling or vocabulary words.

Iowa is among 42 states and the District of Columbia, to have adopted the Common Core State Standards for English, which omits cursive handwriting from the required curriculum. Instead, the emphasis is on students’ ability to write, not how they write.

“As educators, we’re always focused on purpose,” said Celeste Shoppa, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School in Iowa City. “Our focus is so much more on students’ understanding of content.”

Still, cursive handwriting has its place in education, Shoppa said, even if the amount of time dedicated to it has changed.

A 2009 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., cites cursive as important for cognitive development because it “requires fluid movement, eye-hand coordination and fine motor skill development.”

“Creating Better Readers and Writers,” a report emphasizing the importance of handwriting instruction released in fall 2010, stresses that good handwriting skills increase speed and fluency in reading and writing.

Fast, legible handwriting improves note-taking and test-performance because students are able to write quickly and, later, decipher their notes, according to the report.

Cursive handwriting was not eliminated when the he Iowa City school district recently reviewed its language arts curriculum.

Iowa City elementary schools use either the Zaner-Bloser or D’Nealian Handwriting curriculum. Cursive handwriting is introduced in third grade, with specific instruction on letter formation. The district considers fourth grade a practice year, with students left to their own devices in fifth and sixth grades.

“I spoke with some of our middle school teachers and they don’t have a preference as long as the kids are able to write legibly and quickly,” Shoppa said.

While learning to write cursive is very precise, with teachers instructing how to form each letter, the process evolves.

“We tell our students ‘We’re teaching you this style, but as you get older, you’ll develop your own style,’” said Thea Thies, a fourth-grade teacher at East Elementary School in Waukon. “That’s the fun part.”

Thies said she cites historical documents and handwriting analysis as examples of cursive handwriting in effort to increase her students’ enthusiasm of the subject.

When it comes to handwriting, Olthoff said the goal is that students know the formation of the letters and are able to write legibly in both cursive and manuscript. That won’t change, no matter how much technology students have access to at school.“While we are working to become paperless within our district and using technology more for a variety of compositions at the elementary level, we still need to use our handwriting to communicate our ideas and notes at this level,” Thies said.

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