Cursive without curses: Teachers learn how to return handwriting to the classroom

Aug 18, 2016

When you think back on learning to write cursive, do you remember it fondly? Or do you recall smudged letters that didn’t look at all like the flawless classroom model, and how you never could get to stay within those pesky dotted lines?

Or maybe you never even learned it at all.

Fans of cursive think the time-honored means of expression does more than just result in pretty writing. And they want to help make sure children don’t miss out on its benefits.

As the beginning of the school year approached, about three dozen women — no men — gathered in a downtown St. Louis hotel room to hear how they could get young students prepared first for printing, then for cursive writing.

“We have to teach our children how to write so that they can express what they know,” said Paula Heinricher, an occupational therapist. She works with Handwriting Without Tears, the system that sponsored the two-day St. Louis workshop.

And, she added in an interview, once students make the transition from printing to cursive, their thought processes can become smoother as well.

Cathy Van Haute leads a Handwriting Without Tears training session in St. Louis
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

“When we connect those letters,” Heinricher said, “and don't have to lift our pencils for each and every individual letter like we have to do in print, the writing will just flow, and the writing will only flow in cursive also if we taught our children well, so they can also master cursive.”

When they do, she said, they can master better modes of thinking.

“Research has recently shown that when we physically write something,” Heinricher said, “taking pencil to paper, more things are happening in the brain, leading to better memory and better processing. That's not seen when we are typing. So if we're taking notes, when we hand write those notes, we are actually going to be remembering and processing that information more at a deeper level than if we were just typing. 

“Both have a place. It doesn't become handwriting versus technology or keyboarding. I feel in our day and age that both have a very significant place. What we're finding sometimes is that schools are choosing to teach one or the other or neither. And that's where I think we are disadvantaging our students. Both need to be taught in order for our students and our children to become effective and productive members in our society.”

That road to efficiency and productivity could very well start in a conference room at the Holiday Inn Convention Center downtown. There, Cathy Van Haute of Handwriting Without Tears used songs, crayons and pieces of wood – curved and straight – earlier this month to demonstrate how to introduce children to the printing that is the foundation for cursive.

Big line, little line, big curve, little curve — “We want to keep it as simple as possible,” Van Haute said. “If a child can make a circle, they know two letters.”

One member of the group, Tamora Thies, an occupational therapist at the Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains, Missouri, had practical, educational and physiological reasons for keeping cursive in the curriculum.

Tamora Thies
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

“I'm an advocate for cursive writing,” Thies said, “because without it, we will have a generation that will not be able to read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution in its original form. And if you can't read it in its original form, we're a generation away from it being changed and kids being taught this is what it says, because they can't read the original.”

She said children need to learn to form letters correctly, not just copy them from a model, so they can write properly when they don’t have visual cues.

And, she added, mastering cursive writing will help them achieve other skills they’ll need to succeed.

“There's a neurologic connection between being able to do a motor task and being able to do higher level executive functioning like planning and organization and scheduling and other executive tasks that are part of an adult's life,” Thies said.

“As we take away more and more the fine motor components and the motor components of children's requirements, we're going to be taking away their ability to do that executive functioning in the future.”

Asked about the quality of their own handwriting, both Thies and Kathy Rebholz, a former elementary school teacher who now heads a pre-school in Manchester, said they set a very good example.

“Gorgeous,” is how Rebholz described her handwriting. She said cursive can be a key to a how people present themselves as adults.

“I think that your signature is a reflection on you also,” she said. “So I do think that it's important. In the real world you do want to present yourself with your best foot forward, and your signature is a reflection, or is a statement about yourself and how you want to present yourself.”

That kind of statement can’t be developed on a keyboard alone, Rebholz added.

Kathy Rebholz
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

“Children need to be able not just to do something on a computer,” she said.  “For a lot of things, kids are typing and writing, but even where they use a stylus pen, I like the tactile. There is a connection, I think, in the brain, if they're actually doing stuff with paper and pencil versus doing stuff like on an iPad all the time.”

She recalled that when she interviewed for her first teaching job, the principal said she was hired, then left her alone to write out a letter to the parents of her future students.

After five minutes, Rebholz said, the principal returned and said the exercise was really a ruse.

“She came in and said, ‘I'm not going to really read what you wrote. I just wanted to check your handwriting.’

“I just thought that was the most powerful thing. It is a reflection on you. You are putting out what you are going to teach.”

Despite regularly expressed concerns that cursive is going the way of the floppy disk and the VCR, it is demonstrating remarkable staying power. Fans say it looks better and helps students with discipline and orderly thinking.

The Washington Post reported recently that many states are including cursive in their state learning standards. Missouri is included — its new state standards includes cursive in the requirements for English in the primary grades.

Heinricher said that recognition shows the importance of writing by hand in an increasingly technological age.

“Interestingly enough,” she said, “even if we start teaching our children keyboard at an early age, say kindergarten or first grade, at the same time we also need to teach the children how to handwrite. Because it takes a lot of years for our children to become proficient typers, to be able to use that as the primary means of communication.

'It breaks my heart when kids cannot write, and they have so much that they want to say, but yet they're limited by their physical inability to be able to get it out.' — Paula Heinricher of Handwriting Without Tears

“A vast majority of what we’re giving to our students, testingwise, still requires them to take pencil to paper. And if they don't have an effective, efficient means to produce written work, they're not going to be as well on those assessments either.”

Is there a moral dimension as well, a yearning to return to the good old days?

“I think a lot of what we did in the old days might be good solid information to carry over,” Heinricher said. “I'm an occupational therapist myself, working in schools, where I see the breakdown, unfortunately.

“It breaks my heart when kids cannot write, and they have so much that they want to say, but yet they're limited by their physical inability to be able to get it out, because no one has ever taught them how to write. I think that should never be allowed in our schools.”

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