• If you can read cursive, you're probably older than 40
     | January 04,2009

    About five years ago, high school teacher Shirley Bowers realized that half her students had no idea what she was writing on the board.

    "I had a student remark that he couldn't read my notes," said Bowers, who teaches in Sacramento, Calif.

    His fellow classmates fessed up, too. Bauer's notes were hard to read. They were in cursive.

    Over the past decade, teachers and secondary students across the country have reported a trend that their parents and grandparents could scarcely imagine: The millennial generation is increasingly cursive illiterate.

    The digital age has pushed to the periphery a penmanship skill used for generations. The world of personal computers, e-mail and texting has rendered the handwritten note an anomaly, something that many of today's students get only from grandparents. Some parents complain that their middle schoolers can't sign their names in cursive the flowing style of penmanship in which the letters are connected.

    Many students can't read it, and many more can't write it, either.

    "I love teaching cursive, so it's hard to let it go, but with the priorities of No Child Left Behind, it's almost being forced out," said Elizabeth Wihtol, who teaches third grade in California.

    Recently, Wihtol wrote a lowercase cursive "r" on an overhead projector and showed her class how to make the letter.

    The room was quiet. The children lowered their heads as they practiced. One boy, a lefty, stuck his tongue out in concentration.

    "It's fantastic how the words connect it's so different in cursive," said Alyssa Dallman.

    "Once you know how to write cursive, you know how to read it," said Hunter Jurkovich. He could now decode the "secret" cursive notes his older sister writes.

    But while cursive fluency often makes elementary kids feel like grown-ups, this rite of passage often loses its currency once kids hit middle school, teachers say.

    Some middle and high school teachers receive word-processed assignments uploaded to Web sites. Pupils mastering complex content may be more of a priority than perfectly formed cursive script. Fluency dries up.

    "Unless you use it, you lose it," said Susie Schaffer, a retired third-grade and English language arts teacher.

    She thinks cursive needs to be emphasized beyond one or two years of elementary school. "People are beginning to realize that children are graduating with atrocious or illegible handwriting," she said.

    Some cursive proponents say the problem is exacerbated by teacher credentialing programs that no longer train potential teachers on cursive instruction.

    What will happen when the next generation of teachers arrives, some of whom can no longer read or write cursive?

    Frances van Tassell, associate professor in the University of North Texas department of teacher education and administration, said she fears future teachers will no longer be able to teach cursive because they will not have mastered it. As a sort of remedy, she emphasizes cursive mastery and instruction in her program.

    Van Tassell's emphasis is rare, according to a recent study by Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, noted in a November 2007 Newsweek article. He found that only 12 percent of the elementary teachers he surveyed had taken a cursive instruction course.

    So, is cursive fluency a 20th-century cultural hang-up or a necessary skill? That's up for debate.

    "Who, when several generations have chosen the keyboard over cursive, will be able to read handwritten love letters or historical documents?" asked Dennis Williams, the national product manager for Zaner-Bloser, an education publisher that produces a popular cursive instruction curriculum.

    Patrick O'Neill, assistant principal for academics at St. Francis High School in Sacramento, said cursive is a necessary skill.

    "If (our students) can't read or write cursive, there will be parts of the world they will not be able to access," O'Neill said. "They have to be able to access all the forms of communication available today."

    According to the College Board, when the SAT added a handwritten essay to its 2006 exam, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. But those who did earned slightly higher scores.

    Other studies show that learning cursive helps children's brain synapses to develop because it requires fluid movement, eye-hand coordination and fine motor skill development, said van Tassell. "It's like certain kinds of music."

    Mark Bradley, an English and U.S. history teacher in California, said his junior high students who prefer print may lose out on "time efficiency" compared to their counterparts who choose cursive, but he doesn't think cursive fluency is necessary anymore.

    "In everyday life, most (students) don't come across cursive," he said. "Even those who have a wide skill set tend not to have that one as part of their repertoire."

    High school senior Molli Carlson said she rarely encounters cursive except when her grandmother sends her a card.

    Classmate Haylie Casey agrees. "I see it on Christmas cards or birthday cards," she said.

    And how do they reply?

    In print.

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