With their heads bent and posture perfect one afternoon last month, the students in Kate LaMonaca’s third-grade class at the Indian Mills School in South Jersey focused intently on writing the alphabet in cursive on worksheets.
“They love it,” said LaMonaca, who teaches at the Shamong school. “It’s almost a rite of passage.”
But in many districts, it is a skill that has largely fallen by the wayside, amid a tech era when most students use electronic devices and rarely use a pen or pencil to complete assignments. Many states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have eliminated instruction in cursive writing.
Critics say it is an antiquated skill no longer needed. Time spent in the classroom developing an attractive, legible handwriting style could be better used on other subjects, opponents say.
“I want good grammar. I want capitalization. I want periods. I could care less if it’s cursive,” said Suzanne Newman, a fifth-grade teacher at McCloskey Elementary in East Mount Airy. Students there are taught just enough cursive to sign legal documents.
A growing number of states, however, are reconsidering the need for cursive instruction. At least 14 now mandate that students learn it, according to the website mycursive.com. New Jersey has proposed legislation that would require it. And for several years running, Philadelphia City Council members have questioned the absence of cursive instruction in city schools.
Some experts believe students need printing and cursive writing — not just keyboard strokes on a computer. Cursive develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, experts say, by stimulating brain activity, increasing writing speed, and improving retention and self-discipline.
In New Jersey, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, (D., Hudson) recently introduced a bill that, if approved, would require public schools as soon as September to teach cursive writing.
The state had removed it as a mandate in 2010. With no mandate, many school districts stopped teaching cursive. McKnight believes cursive instruction should be required because too many students today are unable to read cursive or even sign their own names.
“It’s time that cursive writing comes back,” McKnight said. “We need to teach our children that this is something that you’re going to use.”
The cursive debate heated up about a decade ago, when educators moved toward the Common Core, a set of national curriculum standards. Handwriting was identified as a skill only to be addressed in kindergarten and first grade.
Handwriting expert Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University, said there is no appreciable difference in manuscript vs. cursive in terms of speed of production or legibility.
“I don’t think we need to teach two forms of the same skills,” said Graham, adding that some states where cursive is mandated require 45 minutes of instruction.
Virginia Berninger, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Washington, has another view. Her research shows that cursive instruction helps students with spelling and makes it easier for them to compose thoughts quickly — skills that can help them meet contemporary standards, Berninger said.
“We need to teach students to be hybrid writers, so they’re competent in multiple modes — manuscript, cursive, and keyboarding. There’s benefits for each one,” said Berninger, adding, “We’re bringing back handwriting.”
Some districts, like Shamong in Burlington County, never stopped teaching cursive writing. Although students are not required to use it for their schoolwork and don’t get graded, they get exposed to it, learning how to read and write cursive.
Once a week, LaMonaca drills her 19 students for 20 minutes in cursive writing. She demonstrates on a white board and then reviews their posture, pencil strokes, and penmanship and students practice in workbooks. Students learn printing in first and second grades.
“I think it’s a little bit hard,” said Aubrey Hanzok, 9. “I’m really used to writing in print, but I think if I keep writing [in cursive] I’ll get better.”
Her classmate Kayla Frysztacki, 9, looks forward to learning cursive so she can teach a younger sister. Another student, Colin Flamisch, believes all students in the state need to learn it.
”A lot of times people ask for your signature,” Colin, 9, said. “It would be unusual to print it.”
At Lawnside School in Camden County, cursive instruction was reinstated in the curriculum about five years ago, said principal Ronn Johnson. Some assignments must be written in cursive, he said.
”We always felt it was important,” Johnson said.
For a recent lesson, English teacher Kenneth Johnson gave tips to his seventh-grade class at Lawnside School, telling students to “hump” the letter h like a camel. He reviewed up and down curves, encouraging them to eventually develop a distinctive writing style.
”It doesn’t look the way it will look when you practice more,” Johnson, a 27-year educator, told the class. “You will get your own styles.”
Parochial schools across the region have remained committed to teaching the art of handwriting and good penmanship, as a sign of a good education and etiquette for sending personal notes.
At Cardinal John Foley Regional Catholic School in Havertown, students look forward to second grade precisely because that’s when they make the transition from printing to writing in cursive.
”They come into second grade and they see their name tags written out in cursive handwriting, and it’s a big deal," said teacher Lori Carrozza, a 31-year educator.
At midmorning on a recent day in Room 123, Carrozza’s students prepared to tackle lowercase Ks. They were excited and laser-focused: feet on the floor, backs against their chairs and one hand on top of the writing paper.
“Print is boring,” said Liam Deveney, 9. “Cursive is cooler.”
Tessa Giroux nodded. “Your pencil never goes off the paper with cursive,” she marveled.
By April, the class should have mastered cursive, Carrozza said, and will spend the rest of their years at the school using cursive exclusively.
Maryann DeAngelo, Cardinal Foley’s principal, has a soft spot for cursive, and it’s not just because it was her favorite subject to teach when she was in the classroom.
“Cursive writing, manuscript, and keyboarding all develop different parts of the brain,” DeAngelo said. “When we say we’re educating the whole child, I think it’s important to teach all three.”