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updated: 12/20/2017 8:33 AM

Why suburban schools are embracing lessons in cursive

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  • Students in Rebecca Lunak's classroom work on cursive writing at Liberty Elementary School in Bartlett. Lunak has been teaching cursive for 25 years. State law was recently changed requiring schools to teach students cursive by fifth grade.

      Students in Rebecca Lunak's classroom work on cursive writing at Liberty Elementary School in Bartlett. Lunak has been teaching cursive for 25 years. State law was recently changed requiring schools to teach students cursive by fifth grade.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Using a technique of looping and grouping letters favored by occupational therapists, third-graders in Rebecca Lunak's classroom at Liberty Elementary School in Bartlett practice the age-old art of cursive writing.

"It helps students develop their fine motor skills," said Lunak, who has taught cursive writing for 25 years. "It improves their hand muscles. It is also important for children to be able to sign their names on documents and read cursive. Because of technology, handwriting is one of those lost arts."

Lunak's students spend 15 minutes practicing writing uppercase and lowercase letters with marker pens and get to be part of Lunak's cursive club. They are rewarded for mastering the skill and passing her test.

"From my experience, the kids love to learn how to write cursive," Lunak said. "Some kids come into third grade with the knowledge of it."

Nearly half the class learned cursive in second grade.

In the past, the teacher decided on whether to teach cursive writing. Now, it's required by state law.

In November, Illinois lawmakers put to rest the lingering debate over whether grade schoolers ought to learn cursive writing in schools.

Overriding Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto, they adopted legislation -- House Bill 2977 -- requiring public elementary schools to offer at least one unit of instruction in cursive writing starting next school year. School districts can determine at what grade level to begin instruction, but students must learn cursive writing before completing fifth grade. The law goes into effect July 1.

Jonny Niksich looks up at the board for help as he and his third-grade classmates work on cursive.
  Jonny Niksich looks up at the board for help as he and his third-grade classmates work on cursive. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Advocates of cursive writing say it is a timeless art, and a lack of understanding might hinder one's ability to read historical documents or family histories. Opponents see it as a nonessential skill and yet another unfunded mandate on schools.

Whether cursive writing improves student outcomes also is in question.

"It depends entirely upon how it is taught," says Rand Nelson, president and CEO of Pennsylvania-based Peterson Directed Handwriting. "For probably 40 years the major educational publishing houses have virtually all been promoting handwriting programs. All of them employ the same strategy to sell workbooks. That does not help the majority of kids learn cursive handwriting."

Nelson said the traditional trace and copy strategy doesn't work for most kids.

"Schools spend enormous sums to buy handwriting workbooks for every child. Therein lies the rub. The act of tracing is not using the kind of movement that we need to teach," Nelson said. "The visual feedback system is guiding the movement. The person tracing is forced to watch the pen move in order to make the lines match."

Nelson favors the Peterson Method, a strategy for movement-based training. Students first learn to finger trace the model letter in the air, then look at the target and execute goal-oriented movement from point A to point B rather than tracing along a line. It helps build muscle memory.

Students in Rebecca Lunak's third-grade classroom work on cursive writing at Liberty Elementary School in Bartlett. Illinois lawmakers voted to require the teaching of cursive in schools.
  Students in Rebecca Lunak's third-grade classroom work on cursive writing at Liberty Elementary School in Bartlett. Illinois lawmakers voted to require the teaching of cursive in schools. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

All 26 lowercase letters are made with three cursive movements -- over-curve, under-curve and slant.

"Training the motor system by finger tracing gives (it) a chance to embed the information," Nelson said. "It's like learning the electric slide. Until you get the whole pattern in your brain, you can't move with the beat with all the other dancers. That's the kind of movement we want kids to learn."

When the teaching strategy includes learning how to move, it creates new brain pathways, resulting in better processing of written language, he said.

While the science behind effective handwriting techniques hasn't been thoroughly investigated, 80 percent of elementary school teachers nationwide use the trace-and-copy method for teaching cursive, according to a study by Steve Graham, a professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

School districts first need to train teachers on changing their strategies to better help students learn cursive, Nelson said. "It can become an art form, if the training would continue long enough," he said. "Print writing, you are only going to get so good at it. It is the challenge that makes the brain change and grow and connect, which cursive provides. It's like basketball, football or baseball ... kids need to practice every day."

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