Melissa Gutierrez carefully writes out cursive words on an assignment for teacher Brittney Chapman. Proponents say learning to write with in cursive aids in brain development; anti-cursive educators say the script is obsolete. / Charlie Leight, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX - With eyebrows furrowed and fingers holding pencils in clawlike grips, third graders at Lowell Elementary School in Mesa were tackling an assignment involving one of the most controversial topics in American education: cursive writing.
Minutes ticked by and most of the students, 9-year-olds in teacher Brittney Chapman's class last spring, had formed only a few words or a single sentence on a lined worksheet.
"It's hard because you have to keep the pen down and connect the letters," said Luis Carlos Miranda, whom Chapman described as one of the better writers in her class of 23.
Another student, Angel Guerra, said he thinks cursive is important because "there is a lot more writing in life than there is typing."
Lowell students are the poorest in Mesa Public Schools, and many do not have access to computers outside of school.
Chapman frequently requires her students to write in cursive. They also need to know how to read her cursive writing on a whiteboard to understand their daily homework assignment.
But many teachers nationwide no longer teach students the curlicue script that older generations once viewed as the hallmark of a well-educated person.
The Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, which are based on the Common Core State Standards Initiative, do not mandate that students learn cursive. Nor did Arizona's previous standards, which the state AIMS assessments are based on.
Forty-four states now follow Common Core. Arizona's version was fully implemented in public-school classrooms last year.
The standards require that students master keyboarding and a form of handwriting, either print or cursive, said Kathryn Hrabluk, who was an associate superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education until she retired this month.
The standards also require that teachers show students how to organize concepts, choose the right words and write correctly spelled words and grammatical sentences.
"The goal is to have students be able to successfully articulate their thoughts, learning and ideas so others can clearly understand," Hrabluk said.
But some states that bought into Common Core are reconsidering the position. Seven states - California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee - are either debating or have recently mandated that cursive be brought back to the classroom.
Arizona has not joined the debate, possibly because many schools still teach cursive despite the lack of a state requirement.
"Kids love to learn how to write in cursive," said Suzan DePrez, Mesa schools assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
"It is a sort of rite of passage. I think there is artistic value in cursive ... also knowing how to read communication in cursive is something we should be able to do."
Officials in other districts also said that they require students to learn cursive, but a few said informally they don't spend much time teaching cursive because they know their students will enter a world where keyboarding is a more important skill.
"Are you expected to publish your stories in cursive handwriting?" DePrez asked an ArizonaRepublic reporter, rhetorically. "The real question is when, beyond elementary school, is one expected or asked to produce in cursive writing?"
Cursive advocates, such as Ahwatukee Foothills parent Lonna Henderson, say that question misses the point.
"I would love to see cursive come back," said Henderson, whose son enters ninth grade and whose daughter enters second next month.
Henderson, 44, said her son learned cursive basics in third grade but did not spend the hours that she did in school perfecting legible script and an attractive signature. Her daughter has not been introduced to cursive yet.
Henderson said she would like to see both of her kids be able to write quickly and neatly in cursive. For several afternoons this summer, she had them practice D'Nealian - a form of printing said to be a precursor to cursive.
"I would love to see an emphasis on pretty handwriting again," she said.
Although many schools teach cursive only in the third grade, Chandler Traditional sixth-grade teacher Jennifer Pawlik said she continues to give her students time to practice and improve their handwriting.
"It seems that most parents value cursive as one part of our curriculum," the 16-year teacher said.
Another cursive advocate is conservative-radio personality Glenn Beck. He argues that people must be able to at least read cursive if they want to appreciate America's Declaration of Independence and other hand-written historical documents.
Beck is also a Common Core critic who believes the standards "dumb down" school curricula.
"Why are they no longer teaching cursive writing?" he asked in one broadcast.
"The easiest way to make someone a slave is to dumb them down. They don't teach them how to read and write."
Some academic researchers advocate teaching cursive to students in the first three years of elementary school, saying research shows cursive helps brain development.
A year ago, Psychology Today published an article by Texas A&M University neuroscientist William Klemm that argues that cursive makes kids smarter.
"Cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual-recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation," he wrote.
Around the same time, the National Association of State Boards of Education issued a report stating that cursive helps develop memory, fine motor skills and better expression.
But an Arizona State University educational-leadership professor considered one of the nation's experts in how children learn handwriting says schools no longer need to teach cursive.
"Cursive handwriting does not make people more intelligent," Steve Graham said. "That is the kind of stuff that floats around but has no basis scientifically."
Graham said before computers were commonplace, adults valued cursive because they could write it faster than they could print. Today, e-mails, text messages and documents created in systems like Microsoft Word take the place of handwritten pages, he said.
Printed signatures are acceptable today, as are electronic signatures, he said. A scrawling John Hancock is no longer needed in today's world. Electronic signatures are legal under Arizona law.
Graham noted that it is still important for children to learn to print clearly, because even at the high-school level only about half of students' work is typed. Fast, accurate keyboarding skills also are important, he said.
"If a student has to constantly think about where the key is, that is going to have an impact on their ability to write well," he said.
Graham said far more important than whether students are printing or writing in cursive is that they are being given assignments that encourage them to write well-thought-out sentences and paragraphs. Far too often, he said, kids are simply asked to fill in the blanks on worksheets.
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