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That's All She Wrote

When star witness Rachel Jeantel took the stand in the George Zimmerman trial and admitted that not only did she not write, but that she could not evenreada letter that had been attributed to her – because it was in cursive – the prosecution groaned. Elementary teachers gasped. And our great-great-grandmothers collectively rolled in their graves.

They’re not alone. The embarrassing moment for the prosecution came as a sign to cursive enthusiasts everywhere that the end is surely nigh for joined-up writing. After all, the Common Core Standards, a set of academic goals adopted in recent years by 45 of our 50 states, has boldly omitted cursive from the elementary requirements.

Texas has chosen to opt out of this joint initiative, and cursive handwriting remains in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) as a requirement in third and fourth grades. But just because it’s penciled in the curriculum does not mean cursive is emphasized at grandmother-approved levels in the public school classroom, as teachers have to make way for other objectives such as keyboarding, character development and standardized testing. “I hate to say this – we’ve got to get everything taught that is on those state tests,” says Nancy Roberts, director of undergraduate programs at the Caldwell Simmons School of Education Department of Teaching and Learning at SMU. “There is a lot of pressure with the testing that is expected, and all teachers want their students to do well.”

In order to meet the state requirements and STAAR quotas, subjects the students will be tested over – math, science, history, reading – must take precedence; the teacher will not be judged by how well her students loop their capital “L”s.

Writing isn’t even a component of the STAAR test until fourth grade, when some teachers discourage their students from writing in cursive on the test because it will be too slow (or illegible). The focus instead is on grammar, punctuation, spelling and style.

“We have to weigh what we think is most important in education,” Roberts says, and when it comes to STAAR, content trumps penmanship. Teachers don’t have anything against cursive specifically; they just don’t have time to teach it to perfection.

Jan McClesky, clinical director at The Handwriting Clinic in Plano, explains that cursive instruction is taxing, requiring much more practice than many teachers have time to spare. This means the kids do still learn it – but only sort of, McClesky says. “They’re really slow at it and they don’t have a good visual memory of the letters.”

In 2009, The Handwriting Clinic teamed up with TWU to conduct a speed test on 394 students exiting third, fourth and fifth grades. When asked to write A–Z in one joined-up string, the third graders averaged 2:05. Fourth and fifth graders were speedier, averaging 60 seconds, but that’s still not good enough. “If we can’t get the kids to writing A–Z in 40 seconds, then it’s just not functional,” McClesky says.

If students can break the speed barrier, cursive may actually be faster than print for some kids, as there are fewer pencil pick-ups. The discipline required to form the letters helps develop fine motor skills and self-control, adds Tammy Johnston, assistant principal at Southwest Christian School in Fort Worth, where cursive is still emphasized through fifth grade. “Handwriting, especially cursive, stimulates the brain in ways that keyboarding doesn’t,” she says.

Johnston also celebrates the choices that teaching cursive, print and keyboarding create for her students. “I think there’s a benefit, certainly, to having the opportunity to choose.” By the time her students enter middle school, they are no longer required to use cursive for every assignment. Some choose to continue with cursive anyway; others migrate toward a personalized fusion of print and cursive. But whatever method they employ, Johnston is reassured that they can write, print and type efficiently. “In order to be successful in the world, we’ve got to be able to communicate in the world,” she says. “We ought to be able to do all three – it’s just a skill set that educated individuals need to keep.”

Other benefits of cursive are more sentimental than scientific. “If someone takes the time to hand-write a card, there’s just something more personal about that,” Johnston says. “It’s the appearance of taking more time and care and concern when you use handwriting.”

Cursive is also woven into the collective fabric of our history, an integral part of what makes our Constitution and Declaration of Independence so recognizable. But in 2013, would those documents still be written out in cursive? Likely not.

That’s the reality of the evolving digital world, when most forms can be filled out online and texting has replaced the traditional hand-written letter. Reading and writing have not disappeared; they have taken new visages. “I don’t think we’re in trouble by not teaching cursive,” Roberts says. “Writing correctly, communicating – that is the important part.”

For this reason, Roberts hopes that cursive, though in her opinion unnecessary, does not get expunged from the classroom, because it is more efficient for some children. But when it comes to the prioritizing of class time, Roberts’ main concern is the content of the writing and whether that content is legible.

“Do I need it to be pretty or do I need them to learn to communicate?” she asks. “We want good solid sentences, grammar, spelling, comprehension, and more than anything else, is that writing legible?”

McClesky, though fond of cursive, also finds herself more attentive to basic legibility than perfect penmanship. “There’s a reason I can have a business,” she says. Nineteen years in the public school system showed McClesky an increasing need for remedial handwriting classes; indeed, The Handwriting Clinic saw 350 kids this summer and generally tutors 70–80 kids a week during the school year. She worries that kids are not being taught how to write in cursive or print, sometimes in favor of learning to type instead. But McClesky believes this battle between handwriting and keyboarding is a false dichotomy. “It’s not whether they need technology or whether they need handwriting – they need both,” she says. As long as kids can form letters legibly with pen and paper, she’s not picky about whether those letters are print, cursive or a funky combination of the two. “I don’t care as long as they have one of them that’s functional.”

Published October 2013