Prosser school board mulls relevance of cursive in classrooms

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 8, 2014 

Third-graders at Kennewick's Eastgate Elementary School already had practiced their "v's" when their teacher sat at her projector and pulled out a worksheet showing the gentle loops of a cursive "w."

"It's up, double u and kick. Up, double u and kick," said Kaylee Garner as she demonstrated the flowing motion for her students.

Cursive writing, with its flourishes, tails and loops, still has a place in grade school classrooms across the Mid-Columbia, educators say.

But writing elegantly isn't as much of a top priority in an age when students spend more time with their fingers on a keyboard than wrapped around a pen or pencil.

"The bottom line is we're running out of time in the school day," Principal Shellie Hatch of Whitstran Elementary School told the Prosser School Board last week. "I think it has merit but fitting it in is difficult."

An increasingly technological society has progressively eliminated the need for handwriting skills in school and the workplace, educators and students told the board. That trend likely will continue with new language arts and math standards going into full effect this fall that emphasize skills such as keyboarding but rarely mention handwriting.

The Prosser board took no action, but members talked about how schools are getting away from teaching students what were once basic skills.

"Keyboarding is all fine until the power goes off and you're stuck with a No. 2 pencil," said board member Bruce Matsumura.

Amplifying the debate is the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for language arts and math in most states, including Washington.

The new standards place more emphasis on using technology to create and publish writing. The new tests that will measure student progress on those standards also will be given using computers instead of with test booklets, answer sheets and pencils.

Washington school districts are currently not required to teach students to write cursive and that won't change with the implementation of Common Core beginning in the fall, said Kristen Jaudon, spokeswoman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

A few states have taken steps to keep cursive in their curriculum while still using the new standards. Most districts in the Mid-Columbia teach cursive writing to elementary students, though the standard varies.

In Pasco, elementary schools provide some instruction in the skill but it's at the teacher's discretion. Officials in several districts said they also teach young students cursive and have no plans to stop doing so under Common Core.

While teachers at the lone elementary school in the Finley School District still teach the skill, Superintendent Lance Hahn said that could change.

"It just depends on how it fits with Common Core," Hahn said, noting the district is in the midst of adopting a new language arts curriculum.

While Whitstran's students learn cursive, specifically the D'Nealian system, they mostly do so through homework done outside of school hours, Hatch said. That's allowed teachers to focus more on other subjects and students have made gains.

Guillermo Madera Perez, a Prosser High School junior and one of the board's student representatives, uses cursive when writing notes in class but doesn't need it much outside the classroom, he said. Few of his classmates write with the flowing script at all, he said.

Prosser board members acknowledge that computers and mobile devices have largely removed the need for handwritten letters and documents. They worry students won't have the skills that require an understanding of penmanship, from reading historic documents to their own signatures.

"What is going to happen to our children if we don't teach them cursive and it comes to signing a check?" said board member Warren Barmore.

There is no plan to eliminate cursive instruction in Prosser schools, district administrators said. However, Common Core's focus on technological skills, especially at the grade-school level, will leave less time for learning the writing style.

"There's this balance we're going to have to find in helping students with the technology and with communicating by hand," said Assistant Superintendent Mary Snitily.

Students developing legible handwriting is key, Prosser educators said, and that is being achieved.

At the same time, rather than spend time copying the words of a teacher to practice cursive, children as young as kindergartners are learning to write their own thoughts.

And while new technology such as tablet computers and increasingly sophisticated smartphones may be exciting, Garner said the ability to write in cursive gets some of her students to like writing.

"Some of them like it," she said. "I think it's a nice change of pace and gives kids something to feel successful about."

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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