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A disappearing art, cursive writing is part of Florida's script

As a 10th-grade English teacher at St. Petersburg High, Tracey Keim grades dozens and dozens of essays. Lately she has spotted a trend among her students — many don't recognize her cursive editing marks when she hands back their papers.

"I used to think it was my handwriting," she said. "But I realized they read everything on a screen. Things on a computer are not written in cursive."

Cursive, that old mainstay of grammar school, seems to have lost its mojo. Blame an influx of technology. Blame a jam-packed curriculum. Whatever the reason, cursive doesn't get the emphasis it used to.

To be sure, cursive handwriting hasn't disappeared from schools. Some private schools test for penmanship. And cursive was reintroduced as a state standard in 2007 because "an emphasis on this skill had been lacking," a Florida Department of Education spokesman said.

Now, the state requires third-graders to learn beginning cursive skills and become fluent in the script by fifth grade.

But public school students aren't specifically tested on handwriting. And elementary teachers must cram more subjects into the school day, forcing many to teach handwriting in conjunction with overall writing lessons.

"It just kind of got a backseat," said Kathleen Wright, the manager for handwriting instruction manuals for Ohio-based publisher Zaner-Bloser. "Teachers just couldn't find a way to fit it into the day."

Cursive isn't included in a set of common teaching guidelines adopted this year by 40 states. But Wright said she is encouraged by states such as California and Florida that included the skill in their guidelines.

"When it's required, then as a teacher you have to figure out a way to get it in there," she said.

The biggest appeal of cursive, she said, is it's more fluid and makes it easier for beginning writers to get their thoughts on paper.

Bay area education officials stressed that cursive isn't a thing of the past.

"We don't see it as an antiquated skill," said Temetia Creed, who coordinates the writing program for Hillsborough County schools. "It's still one of our benchmarks. We're required to provide students with that instruction."

Creed said most handwriting is taught during writing time that might also include spelling lessons or writing for content. If a student's handwriting is too messy to read, he or she gets personal coaching to either focus on print or work on cursive.

Some teachers send practice handwriting worksheets for homework, and others include handwriting during bell work, the 30-minute period before school officially begins. Kindergartners and first-graders spend about 15 minutes a day on print handwriting and learning basic letters.

Cursive instruction begins in third grade, said Pinellas writing project coordinator Mary Osborne, and teachers can decide how to incorporate handwriting into the hour set aside for writing each day.

She said handwriting is key for younger grades because most schoolwork is still done by hand.

Cursive might not get the emphasis it once did, but experts say handwriting still matters.

For starters, most work done at school is still done by hand, so teachers have to be able to read that English essay or science worksheet.

Steve Graham, an education professor at Vanderbilt University, pointed to studies showing that teachers implicitly give higher marks to papers with good penmanship, regardless of the content. Messy writing can result in lower grades.

Especially in early grades, good handwriting is key to better writing overall. If a student struggles with forming the loops on the letter Q, for example, he or she won't be able to focus on putting thoughts on paper. Once writing becomes automatic, students can spend more energy on topic sentences or backing up assertions with evidence.

"I don't know that there is a reason to stick with cursive," Graham said. "The real issue is becoming fluent and masterful with one or the other."

At Countryside Montessori charter school in Land O'Lakes, cursive lessons begin in first grade. Students learn lowercase letters the first half of the year and then move to capital letters. By second grade, they start connecting letters to form words.

During a handwriting lesson Friday, Analia Knabel demonstrated letters on a dry-erase board while two first-graders practiced in workbooks: "You remember when we do the 'b,' how we do it right? You go up — then you go back down."

Seven-year-old Alex Lanni (favorite letter: A) said she prefers script. "Cursive looks more better than print," she said, showing off her practice sheet.

Teachers also use large cards with letters made of sandpaper so students can trace the letters with their fingers before writing them. Principal Dennise Ondina said cursive can help develop fine motor skills and can enable students to write faster.

"Children naturally have an easier way of making connections in their penmanship than they do with letters in isolation," she said.

Graham published a 2007 study showing that 90 percent of elementary teachers give handwriting lessons, for an average of a little more than an hour each week. Most handwriting instruction, he said, stops after third grade. The survey included 169 teachers from across the country.

One concerning finding is that about three-quarters of teachers said they weren't prepared to teach handwriting. "It's not necessarily encouraging that such a high percentage say they don't get any preparation," Graham said.

Laura Goldwire, a writing resource teacher at Edison Elementary in Tampa, works mostly with fourth-graders and spends the bulk of her time sharpening students' writing skills. She'll correct messy handwriting if it gets in the way of comprehension, but she said there's definitely been a shift in cursive instruction since she was in school.

"It was very much emphasized, almost exclusively," said Goldwire, 41. "So much that the teachers weren't worried about the content of our writing and were only concerned with the shape of our letters."

Only a fraction of kids, maybe 5 percent, hand in cursive essays in Dale Hueber's advance placement history class at East Bay High in Hillsborough County. Hueber also grades hundreds of AP essays each year from Colorado and said students simply don't encounter cursive very much in their daily lives. "They don't see it, they're not going to do it."

Like many other teachers, Hueber simply wants readable work, in print or cursive: "If I'm grading an essay and I take more than five minutes to try to decipher it, I just put 'redo' on the top of it."

A disappearing art, cursive writing is part of Florida's script 12/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 13, 2010 3:29pm]
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