Education · Handwriting

The Cursive Handwriting Debate is Not Over—Not Yet!

ballpointpen_(1)_360_360_90Yesterday I received two handwritten missives in my mail, both written in cursive. One was from my doctor, explaining the results of recent routine blood tests and wishing me a pleasant weekend. The other, a brief and lovely message from a friend who recently visited, thanking me for a pleasant time.

And not too long ago, I had a lively conversation with a stranger on the bus who happened to notice I was doing some editing with a fountain pen. He allowed that he loved writing with fountain pens, in fact collected them. I was sorry when we came to his stop.

Personal experience aside— it seems to me that resistance to abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting is growing.

Some teachers say that in this technological era, being able to write in cursive is an unnecessary skill.  What kids are going to need in the future is skill in keyboarding, and they don’t have time to spend on teaching both handwriting and keyboarding. That’s the good reason they give for their opposition. I suspect the real reason is that the better kids are at keyboarding, the better they will do on the tests that are mandated by the common core. In some school districts, children as young as eight years old have to be able to drag and drop and type answers on a keyboard so that they can take tests mandated by the core—tests that as far as I can see benefit no one except the those involved in the test industry. Certainly they don’t benefit the third grader who has squirmed and struggled answering questions that are widely seen as too difficult.

Another real reason is that many teachers themselves do not write in cursive and so feel unable to teach it.

Unfortunately proponents do not put forth very strong arguments. One of their favorites is that if kids can’t read cursive, they won’t be able to read our founding documents. Who in the world reads founding documents in the original copperplate? Have you ever? Neither have I; neither have those making this argument. If that were the primary reason kids need to learn to write cursive, proponents of teaching it would lose hands down.

The strongest arguments for teaching of cursive comes from neurological research. And these are powerful arguments. Pity they are not advanced more often.



No Child Left Behind Gone— Common Core On the Ropes

th(See previous post for an explanation of the origins and history of Common Core so far.)

On Thursday, President Obama signed legislation that replaces the No Child Left Behind law with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Everyone agrees that NCLB, which imposed a tremendous amount of federal control over education, was a failure.

Now, 13 years later, it seems the bureaucrats and the wise men and women of Washington have finally realized that standardized federal controls are unwise and unworkable, so the new law restores a large measure of control to the States where it belongs.Never mind that 50 million American children (some of them for their entire elementary school years) have been subjected to standards and tests proposed by bureaucrats who have never taught a real-live child.

And as for Common Core—

That’s another kettle of fish. These are the detailed educational standards for K-12  proposed by the Governors Association in 2010. States were not required to adopt them but were  incentivized (with $$$) by the feds, and 45 states signed on.

And in New York–a few hours after President Obama signed the new law, Governor Cuomo’s education task force presented their report, recommending that the state replace Common Core learning standards and tests and not use test scores to evaluate teachers at least until 2019. This evaluation issue was fiercely opposed by the Teachers Union. On this I am in absolute agreement. It is one of my general objections to Common Core as implemented in New York.

And as a former English teacher, I am also particularly  opposed to the de-emphasizing of imaginative literature that is a characteristic of Common Core. It’s a heartless approach.

The states who adopted the Common Core standards will have to decide where to go from here. Many of them, to their credit, have already revised or repealed them. Like NCLB, the assumption is that the same standards can be imposed on every school in the U.S., leading to higher outcomes for all.  In my opinion, that is, on the face of it, absurd.





Where Do We Stand With Common Core?



After five years of Common Core,

We’ve got trouble right here in River City. . . and Kansas City. . .and Atlantic City and lots of other cities. Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma have repealed Common Core standards altogether, and at least fifteen states are having second thoughts and are in the process of reviewing them. My home state of Missouri is in the process of replacing Common Core standards with their own standards and I think will soon be in the “repealed” column.

Wait! What is Common Core, anyway?

If you have school age children, you no doubt know, but for those who don’t—Common Core is a set of standards specifying what children should know and be able to do at each grade level, K-12. They apply to mathematics and English language arts.

Who wrote them?

A group of governors, chief state school officers and “education experts” from 48 States. The idea started with the National Governors Association in 2007-08, and apparently was originally the brainchild of Janet Napolitano. You remember—former Secretary of Homeland Security—who at the time was the governor of Arizona.

Why did they write them?

The idea was that in order to lead the world in innovation and remain competitive the U.S. needed to have uniform high standards throughout our educational system. If all states would adopt these standards, children  would all be more or less on the same page and would benefit from the best in educational theory and practice as determined by the “experts”.

So—what happened after they were written?

The standards were ready by 2010, and it was then up to each individual state to adopt them in lieu of their own standards. Even though the federal government had no hand in writing the standards (it’s illegal for the feds to establish a national curriculum) a seductive incentive to sign on was provided by a $4.3 billion Obama initiative called “Race to the Top.” This grant competition gave states that agreed to adopt the Common Core standards extra points on their applications. Forty-five states and the district of Columbia  adopted the standards in 2010 and got the money; four—Texas, Nebraska, Virginia, and Alaska—abstained. Minnesota adopted the English Language Arts standards only.

What’s the Problem?

There has been strong, sometimes vehement opposition to Common Core across the political spectrum. Conservatives object to what they see as federal intrusion into education, which they believe should be left to the States; both liberals and conservatives object to the excessive testing, which is part of the program, and what many see as unnecessarily convoluted teaching materials. Engineer fathers  are perplexed by the presentation of  complicated solutions to simple math problems and worried mothers say their children are so stressed by the tests that they are throwing up on test day. For many, Common Core is seen as taking all the joy out of learning. An “Opt Out” movement where parents simply keep their children home on test days has gained strength in many places, including New York City.

And now States are finding they can’t afford it!

With “Race to the Top” money now pretty much spent, many states are finding that they just don’t have the resources to invest further in teacher training, acquiring instructional materials. and implementing  the technology for the tests, which are administered on the computer. Two groups, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium were granted a total of $362 million dollars in federal funds to develop tests for Common Core, but the fee for using these tests has proved prohibitive for many school districts.

What’s going to happen now?

We’ll see. A lot of money has been spent, some would say wasted, in an effort to implement these standards nationwide. There is strong political support, Jeb Bush being the most prominent political figure in favor of Common Core. Nevertheless, in my opinion,  entropy will prevail and while some of the Common Core ideas may be adopted, state boards of education will eventually resume their legitimate task of setting standards for the children in their state. And I think that would be a good thing. I have specific reservations about Common Core, but I’ll save them for later. This post is already too long.



Education · Handwriting · Technology

Let’s Just Call It Handwriting



The Tennessee and South Carolina legislatures are now considering bills that would require the teaching of cursive handwriting in their public schools. If this legislation passes, these states will join seven others—Florida, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California— where the teaching of cursive is now either required by law or has been adopted by the State Board of Education to supplement the Common Core standards.

 These standards are part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Federal initiative that specifies learning outcomes and rewards states that test students for achievement of these outcomes. The standards were written by a group of governors, state education leaders and other experts. They do not include the teaching of handwriting.

 The state of Indiana, one of the first of forty-five states to adopt the standards, has just withdrawn from Common Core. Legislation signed by the governor Monday, March 24, requires the Board of Education to create its own goals by July 1. It will be interesting to learn whether those goals include the teaching of handwriting and whether other states follow Indiana’s lead in dumping Common Core in favor of locally controlled education.


Since Common Core does not specify cursive writing as a goal, many schools have stopped teaching handwriting past the second grade. Those who are in favor of dropping the teaching of “cursive” believe that manuscript printing should be taught in grades 1 and 2, but do not see the point of continuing instruction and practice of handwriting beginning in grade 3 because in the digital age, writing by hand is seldom necessary and when it is necessary, the printing learned in first and second grade will do. Classroom time should be used in teaching keyboarding,

Seriously! That seems to be their argument: that proficiency in writing rapidly and legibly by hand be dropped as a pedagogical goal at age 8.  They apparently believe that no further instruction or practice or effort to acquire a controlled hand is necessary after age 8, when neural connections are still fragile.  Age 8!


 “Should we be teaching handwriting—of any kind—past the second grade”? Let’s just call it handwriting or longhand. Whether it is writing with loops or no loops, written vertically or slanted, with every letter joined or just some letters joined really makes no difference. What we need to ask is this question: Are there benefits to learning and practicing writing by hand as opposed to keyboarding, and in practicing that skill throughout one’s academic career?


Strangely, the most potent argument in favor of offering instruction and requiring the practice of handwriting throughout one’s academic career is very seldom offered.

It has to do with the relation of the hand to the brain. The feedback we get from forming the shapes of letters with our hand and focusing on the tip of the pen is quite different from the percussive strokes we make when typing on a keyboard, where the letters come ready made, where there is no distinction from the demands made in forming one letter vs. another, and the focus constantly shifts from the keyboard to the screen.


Neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay of the University of Marseille and Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger (Norway) have examined a wealth of research that deals with the significance of the differences between typing and writing by hand.(If you wish to read the article by Velay and Mangen summarizing the specific studies, here’s the link.)


A growing body of evidence in various scientific fields shows that the way we move our body (our hand, for example) and engage our senses (visual, tactile, kinesthetic, sound) plays an important role in learning and cognitive development.

In discussing how we teach writing, it is important to take this concept of “embodied cognition” into account. We generally tend to overemphasize the visual and ignore what is known as “haptics,” the way we learn and communicate by touch.

Different parts of the brain light up on an MRI when writing by hand and when typing. Some of these studies suggest that the challenge of learning to form letters by hand results in more fluency in speaking and reading as well.

Also the experience many of us have of being better able to memorize material if we write it down by hand is born out by the research.

When writing on a keyboard, attention oscillates between the screen and the keyboard and we constantly interrupt our thoughts to correct what we have written. When writing by hand, what one researcher has dubbed a “kinetic melody” is eventually achieved, when we no longer need to attend to letter formation and the writing seems to flow as the words pass through the hand. When this is achieved, we seldom stop to make corrections, there is an uninterrupted connection of our thoughts, and creativity is facilitated.


Evidence suggests that writing by hand facilitates fluency in reading and speaking, ability to memorize and to think creatively. But it is not necessary to abandon the teaching of keyboarding in favor of handwriting. Children can and should learn to do both. For a century and a half millions of people learned to use the QWERTY keyboard and to write a legible hand as well. You would think that those who oppose the teaching of  handwriting past second grade never heard of the typewriter.