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What can cursive writing teach kids? Plenty, say some

| Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, 10:42 p.m.
McIntyre Elementary School K-6 English/Language Arts curriculum leader Carol Nelson sings the 'Magic C Rap' song with her first-grade class using the 'Magic C bunny' puppet during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
McIntyre Elementary School K-6 English/Language Arts curriculum leader Carol Nelson sings the 'Magic C Rap' song with her first-grade class using the 'Magic C bunny' puppet during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
McIntyre Elementary School first-graders Luca Massucci, 6, and Luke Tobik, 6, practice writing the capital letter 'C' during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
McIntyre Elementary School first-graders Luca Massucci, 6, and Luke Tobik, 6, practice writing the capital letter 'C' during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
McIntyre Elementary School first-graders Hailey Heiles, 6, and Violet Peluso, 6, dance as they sing the 'Magic C Rap' song with their classmates in Carol Nelson's first-grade class during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
McIntyre Elementary School first-graders Hailey Heiles, 6, and Violet Peluso, 6, dance as they sing the 'Magic C Rap' song with their classmates in Carol Nelson's first-grade class during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
McIntyre Elementary School first-grader Brandt Earnest, 6, practices writing the capital letter 'C' during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
McIntyre Elementary School first-grader Brandt Earnest, 6, practices writing the capital letter 'C' during a cursive handwriting lesson Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.

Violet Peluso made sure she was at the front of the group, where she could see the teacher and her rabbit puppet.

When the music started, she joined her first-grade classmates in their rendition of “The Magic C Rap,” dancing around and tracing the letter “C” in the air with her finger.

“I do a lot of karaoke,” said Violet, 6, after she sat down at her desk and copied the letter several times in her handwriting workbook. “It's good practice.”

Her teacher at McIntyre Elementary School, Carol Nelson, told each student to circle their best letter and close their books. The lesson lasted for about 10 minutes.

North Hills School District is among a growing number of districts that are putting renewed emphasis on handwriting — specifically, cursive — after new research has shown that teaching the looping, continuous writing style benefits brain development, memory retention and fine motor skills.

“As the demands on our teachers and our students became greater, (cursive) kind of got pushed to the back burner,” said Paula Heinricher, a Pittsburgh-based representative of Handwriting Without Tears, which uses music and games to teach short lessons. North Hills adopted the program during the 2014-15 school year.

In the past decade, teachers were encouraged to focus on testing and typing, Heinricher said. The new federal Common Core education standards don't require handwriting instruction past first grade, and cursive instruction is not included.

But more local educators are starting to realize that students need to be able to use a pen as well as a keyboard.

Montour School District always had a cursive writing curriculum, but not every teacher had time to teach it, said Christopher Stone, the district's director of K-6 education.

About three years ago, as the school district was making the transition to the Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state's version of Common Core, cursive instruction stopped.

Montour started teaching cursive again last year for students in grades first to fourth and has had good results, Stone said.

“We felt it was worthwhile for the 10 or 15 minutes a day to learn that lifelong skill,” he said. “And of course, it's reinforced by the research that's coming out.”

A 2012 study released by Saperstein Associates, a Columbus, Ohio-based research firm, found that teaching handwriting improves students' composition, reading comprehension, brain function and motor skills. Handwriting instruction helps students focus and organize their thoughts on paper, the study found.

Rand Nelson, president of Greensburg-based Peterson Directed Handwriting, said more schools and districts have been ordering the cursive instruction models from the century-old company. Clients from 15 years ago are coming back.

Nelson credits the uptick to the new research about the benefits of cursive.

“Cursive is a special kind of motor challenge because the goal is to put all the letters together of a word with very little lift and touch (of the pen),” Nelson said. “Each new word is like a brand new magic trick.”

Cursive writing is not required in Pennsylvania as it is in some other states such as California, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, but local school districts are slowly bringing it back, Heinricher said.

Upper St. Clair and New Castle Area school districts and The Goddard Schools, a national chain that specializes in early childhood education and STEAM learning, use Handwriting Without Tears curricula.

“If you can't write, you can't express what you know, you can't express what (the teacher) taught you,” she said. “Just like we have to teach reading — which in the end becomes a support for all other subject areas — we have to teach writing.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7886 or Lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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