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Dying art of cursive lingers in some classrooms

November 16, 2012

The chant is loud and catchy:

“Start like a C, close with an i form that touches top line and tail!”

Just what is going on here?

It’s cursive lesson time at Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy.

The kindergarten students are enthusiastically practicing their lower case d.

Teacher Lili Mueh purposely sketches a d that doesn’t look right.

Five year old Kaden Mundie corrects her: “The belly is too big,” he says.

You won’t find this type of lesson everywhere.

Just a few neighborhoods away at Turman Elementary School in Harrison School District 2, the kids learn to write by printing block letters.

Not so long ago cursive penmanship was the predominant writing form in classrooms. Now proponents like Cheyenne Charter are fighting a lonelier battle as cursive goes the way of classroom chalkboards and desks equipped with ink wells.

“Most of our principals say cursive is a dying art,” explains Christine Lyle, D-2 spokeswoman. At one meeting when administrators mulled over the pros and cons, she notes, “The consensus was, ‘When do students really need to read cursive these days other than on wedding invitations, birthday cakes or a letter from grandma?’”

Those who endorse printing say that it gives kids an academic edge. But those who use cursive say the same thing. Research has upheld both views.

But classroom forces that are giving printing predominance, educators say.

The first is the relentless push to prepare kids for the state’s mandated standardized tests. Teachers have little time to teach cursive, particularly in third grade, where it has often been introduced after printing was taught in grades 1 and 2. Third grade is the first year that students take the all-important state tests.

Some teachers say that introducing cursive then can confuse kids and harm their test writing, where speed and legibility can be a factor in outcome.

In Colorado Springs School District 11, some schools teach cursive, others don’t.

“The instructional dilemma is that we don’t want to jeopardize their writing test,” notes Vincent Puzick, K-12 language arts facilitator. The bottom line is a student needs to have control of their writing, whether it is cursive or printing. “If they are struggling with letter formation, they can’t produce larger pieces of text.”

The state does not dictate which form of writing should be taught.

Students can use cursive or printing on the writing portion of assessment tests, says Melissa Colsman, CDE executive director of teaching and learning. What is important is how well students meet literacy expectations. “We look for how well the student demonstrates a command of the conventions of standard English and grammar usage.”

In the SAT college entrance exams, cursive or printing can be used in the essay portion, says Leslie Sepuka, spokeswoman for The College Board, the national organization that oversees the test. As in the state tests, students use pencils and paper, not a computer.

Another change helping drive the nail in the cursive coffin is the state mandate for 21st Century learning that starts in kindergarten and focuses on skills for the workplace and college. Colorado’s required common core curriculum, mentions that children in kindergarten and first grade should begin forming “printed” letters. Cursive is not mentioned.

“We don’t devote any time to cursive. We focus on the keyboard,” explains Mike Roth, principal at Turman Elementary. “We have two computer labs and even the kindergarten students use them.”

Kindergarten students spend the first nine weeks, up to 40 minutes a day, learning to recognize letters by sight and sound and write them. By the end of the first quarter, they are on their way to efficiently forming print letters with ease. The exercises continue in first and second grades. Cursive is not taught.

Many educators see value in cursive, so district officials often let individual schools decide how to address printing and cursive.

In Lewis-Palmer School District 38, both are taught.

'We do believe cursive is an essential skill that helps students read and write,” notes Lori Benton, director of assessments, gifted education and technology.

“When they start to read a book it is in print. So they master those skills first,” Benton says. Later they learn cursive. One benefit is that it helps prevent letter reversal, a common problem with letters such as b’s and d’s.

Some research indicates that young children do not have the fine motor skills or dexterity to write cursive, educators say. But other studies differ, and still others say the fastest and most legible cursive writers only join some letters together when making words.

At Cheyenne Mountain Academy, the kids learn to print in preschool and start cursive in kindergarten, practicing 20 minutes each day, and continue using it through sixth grade for writing papers and taking tests. There are no computers in the classrooms.

“We are a foundation school, and believe they need the basics before they do other things, “ says Kayla Matos, assistant principal.

The fluid pencil strokes necessary to write cursive leads to fluid reading, she says.

Matos notes that the charter academy founders 18 years ago prescribed to the philosophy of national literacy expert Samuel Blumenfeld a proponent of cursive.

Parents of prospective students are told why cursive is taught. One reason: “Give a child a crayon. Does he draw squares? He draws curls and swirls.”

Matos notes that taking up cursive in kindergarten solves the time problem of teaching it in third grade when students are heavy into core subjects.

The school consistently has high state assessment scores in all subjects. This year, the third graders scored 94 percent proficient and advanced in writing, compared to the 53 percent state average.

They’ve seen many academic successes, including how cursive can be a defense against dyslexia, particularly transposing letters. It also can help with spelling because of the repetition of hand movements.

Taylor Van Demarr is thrilled with the cursive that her two children have learned at Cheyenne Mountain Academy. They had worked on printing block letters at a preschool, but found it easier to learn cursive, she says. “It was quick and fluid and more natural.”

It seems to be bragging rights in this day and age, too. “When I tell my friends that they do cursive, they are blown away,” Van Demarr says.

Mueh, who teaches the kindergartners, gets the same sort of reaction.

“I have teachers elsewhere that tell me that if they write something in cursive, even the older kids can’t read it.”

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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