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Cursing Cursive March 16, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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Millennial Generation Seen As Increasingly Cursive Illiterate” was the headline story in the NEA’s The Opening Bell on Jan 5th. One teacher lamented that cursive is “almost being forced out” of the elementary curriculum due to “the priorities of No Child Left Behind.” My reaction? Boo hoo.

I teach third grade – Ground Zero for teaching cursive. The first week of school, I have my students complete a variety of assignments that go into a Time Capsule (okay, it’s just a decorated paper towel roll with tissue paper glued on the ends).  About Me. My Favorite Things. My Best Friend. You get the picture. Then I have them write, “In third grade we learn how to write in cursive.” There’s always that one kid who already knows cursive, but the rest, after some moaning and groaning, just make something up.  It usually looks like they wrote with their foot.

In May, I have my students write the same sentence again. At Open House, they get to open their Time Capsule and see how much smarter they’ve become (this has only backfired twice). Students laugh hysterically when they put the two samples of their cursive side by side.

Recently I ran across my own report card from 6th grade and was surprised to see that I’d received  a grade in Penmanship, with subcategories for letter size and formation, Slant, Spacing, and Neatness!  I had a check on Slant, but received an “I” for “Improved” two quarters later. Whew! But that was BC  – before Computers. Almost everything I write now (aside from the grocery list) is on the computer. I’m honest with my students. I only use cursive to sign my name, and then I challenge them to try and read my signature.

I’ve got two students this year that are still printing letters using “The Claw” technique. They literally grip that stub of a pencil in their crab claw. Now this was something that was supposed to have been addressed in first grade, so I have to set them straight. No matter how brilliant they are, if they apply for a job and fill out the application using “The Claw,” they’re going to be shown the door. So I’ve got some kids still learning how to hold a pencil.

Not that teaching cursive isn’t a teacher’s dream. Put on some classical music and watch the kids zone out as they write an entire row of double “l’s.” In a soothing voice, I coo, “take that letter all the way up to the belt line” or “remember, it’s like each letter is a breaking wave” (adding whooshing and swooshing sounds is optional). For that smarty pants who already knows cursive, I have a satchel filled with calligraphy markers and a How to Write Calligraphy book. (I’d like to think I’m giving them a head start on the art of forging historical documents.)

I’d much rather have my students perfecting their keyboarding skills in computer lab. My students take Accelerated Reader tests on-line and some can take 15 minutes just to type in the title of the book.  Most of the research for their projects is now done on-line.  If they’re going to have to learn cursive, they should at least be able to fashion their own quill pen.

My friend Kristina said her third grade teacher had her class write the same sentence over and over. “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping bear.” This single sentence has ALL the letters in the alphabet in it. Yep, I checked. It’s a big improvement over the last sentence I had my students write, “Writing in cursive is obsolete!”

Another teacher (who writes in cursive and prides herself on not having a computer) took issue. “I’ll have you know that I’m taking a night class in French and my teacher writes everything in cursive.” Leave it to the French. I rest my case.



1. Catherine Sherman - March 16, 2009

I still try to write my signature so that it’s legible, but otherwise my cursive skills make me curse too! When I write the occasional thank you note, I do write it in cursive and find that I’m writing it so quickly that it’s just an ugly scrawl. Then I tell myself that while it’s great to type at lightning speed, it’s better to be mindful as we express our thanks with a pen and let the letters flow slowly and thoughtfully. (How’s that for BS! I can see you gagging now!) I have plenty of your old letters that are very beautifully written, both in content and in appearance! They were both a joy to read and to look at as works of art (great stationery, too), and that’s why I’m keeping them. (Not for any blackmailing purposes!)

Catherine – You’re right about the thank you notes. Without that delete key, you do have to slow down and compose your thoughts. That’s why I’ve taken to calling people to thank them. I’ve got a few of your letters still tucked away too. (Just in case!) Jan


2. moxey - March 17, 2009

Moxey- There’s classic “We the People” cursive and modern cursive, which goes easy on those fancy swirly capital letters. Yeah, my “T” looks like a good old “T” too. I can write beautifully in cursive, but I don’t have the time. When I was growing up, if I saw someone’s cursive I liked, I’d spend hours copying it. I can still write in about five different styles. But when I’m in a hurry, it’s all scribble scrabble and when I sign my name, it looks like I have my M.D.

The strange thing is I’ve had a number of lefties who had excellent handwriting. I was surprised, because I can’t imagine what it’s like to be writing and covering the letters as you go. But all of my lefties were also incredibly artistic. Keyboarding (and now texting) are the great right/left equalizers. Jan


3. lilikaofthelake - March 22, 2009

Do you remember Babar? As super dyslexic girl I learned to read with those books and learned cursive first – even today I do not print well and always use cursive. I love good printing it is the very essence of elegance to me. I would hate to see the end of cursive writing. I can not wait for my kids to learn over the next two years.
I’m going to the park and see if I can find you some Geese feathers for quills.


4. Geckomayhem - February 22, 2010

Wow, I didn’t know that Americans learned fancy writing at school. I haven’t had much interaction with Americans, and especially not with written (ie. non-electronically produced) words.

In New Zealand, we never learned cursive. And in fact, it took me a bit of googling to find out what that fancy, swirly writing style was called! I’m 30 years old and consider myself an apt writer; but when it comes to penmanship, anyone that has learned how to “write” would put me to shame. We were just never given that opportunity growing up.

It would have been nice to have learned a different style; especially since I physically write (read: non-electronically produce :p) every day. And as far as signatures go, mine looks so lame compared to anyone that took the time to learn how to write in cursive. 😦

I guess the resources are out there to instruct and provide a means for practising handwriting. And I guess it would help me to read the style better as well, as these days I occasionally encounter those smartypants’ who have such fancy handwriting. >.<

Geckomayhem, If it’s any comfort my signature is also illegible, yet I can write perfectly in cursive (but only when teaching children). If deprived of my keyboard, I print. With all that they want us to teach children, teaching cursive is low on my priorities. But, I still soldier on. 🙂 Jan


5. chelsea - September 8, 2010

HI…You don’tknow me…but, I googled “already knows cursive” and got your Blog…:) So, I could really use some advice…from someone as grounded as you sound…My 8-year-old started public school last week…3rd grade…They started learning cursive the first week. My daughter learned it in first grade…although she could use some practice for speed, she writed vers beautifully…So, she wrote a nice note to her teacher in cursive explaining that she learned it already and was wondering if she could use that period to work on some that she hasn’t learned yet…The teacher emailed me – not her, and said that they have to make sure that the cursive she learned is the same as the cursive they are teaching at the school, and if it is, then she can get an extended lesson…I was wondering what that means…I don’t want to bother the teacher too much, but how many ways are there to make a cursive “a”…? And am I out of my mind requesting that she not have to plug through the lessons that she received 2 years ago and has been practicing ever since….hmmmm…Oh, and nope…I don’t use cursive anymore…sometimes I use a combo of print/cursive…and I have the worlds worst penmanship, but I’m a pretty fast typest!

Chelsea – I’m with you. How many ways are there to make a cursive “a?” I’m in the process of becoming GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) Certified, as I’ve been asked to teach a GATE cluster for the first time this year. The overwhelming message from the two books I’m required to read is that if a child demonstrates mastery of a skill up front, they should be given an “extension” activity. It could be as simple as having her read or work on a project. It doesn’t have to be related to cursive. She wouldn’t make a big deal about doing something different. The other kids would know she gets to do this because she’s already mastered the skill being taught. (Mastery is termed knowing 80 percent of the material before it’s been taught.)

Our district is starting unusually late this year due to furlough days. For the first time ever, I’m going to have my new class of 30+ next week for four days in a row. I have to admit that this thought came to mind, “Starting to teach them cursive on the first few days would kill some time.” I say this because the first few weeks of school, it often feels like you’re flying by the seat of your pants. You’re not thinking about differentiating instruction, but just memorizing all of the students’ names. It seems that after things have settled down and your daughter has crossed those “t”s and dotted those “i”s, it seems that if nothing else, she should be allowed to silently read! Jan


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