EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 7, 2013

Penmanship alive and well in local districts

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

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If Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire schools are any indication, cursive handwriting isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Children still need cursive as far as signing their names on checks and official papers,” said Carol Mack, principal of the Matthew Thornton School in Londonderry. “We don’t put the same amount of emphasis on it like we used to, but it’s important for them to be able to read it still.”

In Haverhill, Superintendent of Schools James Scully said penmanship will be taught at local elementary schools as long as he’s around.

“I don’t see us de-emphasizing that,” he said. “At least not in my lifetime.”

The use and teaching of cursive writing has been fading from society since the arrival of the computer keyboard. Common core education standards require proficiency in keyboarding by grade 4, but not in cursive hand-writing.

In New Hampshire, cursive handwriting is not a requirement — and may never have been. School districts make a choice as to whether they want to teach cursive.

Some do, and some don’t, according to Judith Sillion of the New Hampshire Department of Education.

“It’s not a requirement, but a number of districts offer it,” she said. “I have heard that some don’t.”

The same is true in Massachusetts, said JC Considine, director of board and media relations for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Massachusetts added a standard in 2011 requiring that all fourth-graders be able to “write legible by hand, using either printing or cursive handwriting.”

“Some schools teach cursive handwriting, some don’t,” he said. “The point of writing is communication, hence we placed the emphasis on legibility, rather than the form of the letters.”

While cursive handwriting is not a requirement, that hasn’t stopped schools — both public and private — from teaching it.

“We can never be replaced by the computer,” said Sister Suzanne Fondini, principal of the St. Monica School on Lawrence Street in Methuen.

She, like other educators, said students need to be skilled in all types of communication.

“They need to know keyboarding and how to use an iPad but they also need to know the art of personal-letter writing,” she said. “It takes a few moments of your time, but I really believe that so sincerely. There are thank-you notes I will personally write as a warm and grateful thanks to someone. I believe in it very sincerely.”

And, she said, cursive handwriting is the best format for that.

“The art of writing is what is important,” she said. “It’s part of our culture as well. It’s part of the fine arts. These are the fine things we have to teach them in life. As educators, we will fail if we cease doing that.”

Mack, in Londonderry, said her school is teaching both penmanship and keyboarding while understanding that society is in a “transitional time.”

In the past, cursive writing was one way to check on the fine motor skills of a student. That has been replaced by texting, she said.

However, cursive is still a useful skill, since it improves the speed of handwriting.

“It makes it faster for them to write responses,” she said.

Christopher Wilson, head of school at Esperanza Academy, a Lawrence middle school, agreed.

While many students come from elementary schools without knowing how to write in cursive, “a student who can write in cursive can take notes faster.”

Plus, he said, “if they have a writing assignment that they have to do in longhand, they can do it faster. And they can take tests faster. Printing just takes longer.”

He noted that the argument against teaching cursive writing — that almost all writing is being done electronically on computers — isn’t always true.

“Most schools I know, kids are still sitting in a classroom with pencil and paper,” he said. “There’s value in teaching children to write in cursive.”

Mack said that in Londonderry “we are not at a point where a child is working on a computer all day long. It will take a while for schools to catch up to that point.”