W. Pa. schools still emphasize cursive writing

| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 10:31 a.m.

Taylor Mahoney traced a capital cursive M in her workbook this week like someone who had been doing it for years.

Actually, the third-grader learned it last year and hasn't looked back.

“Because it's fun, and it's a new way for me to write,” said Taylor, 8, who attends the North Hills School District's McIntyre Elementary School in Ross.

Each school day, she and 25 other students in teacher Heather Logue's class practice cursive letters.

While many schools nationwide are eliminating or reducing the frequency of cursive lessons, North Hills not only is maintaining them but is introducing a curriculum that is interactive and uses common steps to form letters starting in kindergarten, when print is introduced, through fifth grade, when students are experienced cursive writers.

“Every teacher was teaching handwriting in their own way, so we needed a common curriculum,” said first-grade teacher Carol Nelson, a member of the committee that selected the new cursive program, Handwriting Without Tears, in the spring.

Cursive education in schools is declining because more time is being spent to meet state and federal standardized testing mandates, and because there is a growing focus on technology-based communication by younger students, experts said.

A national survey of 612 elementary school teachers found that 41 percent no longer incorporated cursive instruction in their curriculum, according to Monroe, Conn.-based teaching supplies retailer Really Good Stuff Inc., which released the results in April.

Of those surveyed, 71 percent felt that there would be long-term negative consequences associated with eliminating cursive education, such as poor fine-motor skills development.

At least locally, schools seem to be shifting from having students master cursive to only exposing them to it, said Duquesne University education Professor Susie McLaughlin, who is a former elementary school teacher.

There is, however, still value in cursive as a life skill, such as knowing how to handwrite a thank-you note, she said.

Highlands School District no longer requires cursive instruction for second-graders, spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski said.

“Budgetary confinements through the past years have led to the district no longer purchasing the cursive curriculum. However, teachers are encouraged and many do informally teach students cursive handwriting skills during writing lessons,” she said.

Woodland Hills School District used to teach a course in cursive to third-graders, but about six years ago, cursive was rolled into a unit in language arts, acting Superintendent Alan Johnson said.

The level of instruction students receive depends on how much time is left for it, he said.

“I think it's still an important skill, but I do think it's a valid point as we switch and become more of an electronic society that it has less of an impact on a student's career than it did even 25 years ago,” he said.

The West Mifflin Area School District removed cursive from its elementary school students' report cards this school year because evaluating handwriting is so subjective, but it is still taught in second grade, said Noelle Haney, principal of Clara Barton Elementary School.

“Now with technology, a lot of things are being done on computers,” said Haney, who said all children still should know some cursive so they can sign contracts as adults.

For some local school districts, including Fox Chapel Area, North Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon, cursive education is not going anywhere, representatives said.

By the end of the second grade, Gateway School District students can read and write in cursive, and they are excited to learn it, said Sally Martin, a second-grade teacher at Gateway's University Park Elementary School in Monroeville.

“It's almost like they're able to unlock the code of a new type of writing,” said Martin, who said it's important that educators find a balance between technology and cursive education. In 2007, Pittsburgh Public Schools implemented a standardized writing curriculum across grade levels with technology components, said Naomi York-Abdullah, K-8 curriculum and assessment coordinator for Pittsburgh schools, whose students learn cursive in third grade.

“Students get excited. They want to learn how to write in cursive….and we don't want that to become a lost art in our classrooms,” she said.

North Hills had been using the Zaner-Bloser curriculum to teach cursive to students in the second grade, but with Handwriting Without Tears, it will start cursive education in the third grade in the next school year. The new program, which employs repetitive motions, songs and games to reinforce lessons, is used to teach print to kindergarten through second-graders now.

Becoming adept at cursive isn't as important for students as being able to write or print in a fluid and legible manner, said Steve Graham, an Arizona State University professor of education who has studied handwriting education for 30 years.

“How expedient is it to teach two forms of handwriting? Do you really need two forms?” he asked.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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