Some schools embracing new law encouraging lost art of cursive writing

Two years ago, Mara Murphy first practiced cursive writing with her grandfather, carefully gliding her pencil to create slanted, looping letters on a page.

But while many Ohio students might only hone their handwriting skills at home these days, the 8-year-old third-grader is happy to also be learning them with classmates at Stevenson Elementary School in Grandview Heights. On Monday, they stretched lowercase letters across a workbook page’s dotted lines to refresh their cursive skills after winter break.

“It’s really cool to learn to make letters in different ways,” Murphy said.

Third-grade teacher Angela Pharion, who guided the lesson, said it’s not uncommon to see students keyboarding, printing letters and practicing cursive alongside one another in her classroom. While cursive is an optional lesson in Ohio, and some folks have dubbed it outdated, Pharion said learning a variety of communication tools helps students be more versatile.

A new law outgoing Gov. John Kasich signed last month aims to provide more elementary students with such an opportunity — but it doesn’t mandate it, as more than a dozen other states do.

In central Ohio, educators and advocates say the flexibility and local control is appreciated when teachers already face a loaded school day.

House Bill 58 requires the Ohio Department of Education to create instructional materials on the development of handwriting by July 1, which would include being able to write legibly in cursive by fifth grade.

The department soon will begin preparing a plan to guide the bill’s implementation, which will include listening to educators and reviewing evidence-based instructional practices, spokesman Dan Minnich said.

Whether a school uses the new materials is a local decision.

“Whenever you put something in, something comes out, because it’s not like schools have unused time,” said Anthony Podigil, executive director of the Alliance for a High Quality Education, a consortium of about 75 mostly suburban Ohio school districts, including several in central Ohio.

“Those are really hard decisions for a district that can take some time,” he said.

Scott Varner, spokesman for Columbus City Schools, said the state’s largest school district doesn’t have a cursive curriculum, but it is incorporated if teachers are able to do so.

“The challenge is, while it’s a valuable skill, when we think about the jobs of the future, how many of them will depend upon cursive writing?” Varner said.

Previously, Ohio legislators, including Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, proposed a bill with mandatory cursive curriculum to counteract schools eliminating it and other instruction in favor of “teaching to the test.”

During testimony, advocates said the benefits of writing in cursive go beyond reading grandma’s hand-written birthday cards and historical documents. Research suggests cursive is one of the few skills that supports communication between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, improving brain development, increasing comprehension and developing motor skills. That can be particularly helpful for students with disabilities, they said.

The original bill’s mandate drew criticism from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials. They’re not opposed to the law Kasich signed.

The new law comes about a decade after cursive was omitted from Ohio’s learning standards, which specify what students should be learning at each grade level. In 2010, Ohio and most other states adopted standards called Common Core, which don’t mention cursive. Ohio’s standards have since been modified and renamed, but cursive still isn’t required.

But in some districts, such as Grandview Heights, cursive has endured.

It’s not a graded subject, but rather is integrated into daily lessons alongside skills such as keyboarding, which often is mistakenly viewed as at odds with cursive, chief academic officer Jamie Lusher said.

“Computers are not a competing interest with fluent writing,” she said.

Critics, including Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, one of a handful of lawmakers who voted against the new law, say other, more contemporary skills should still be prioritized.

Officials from several area schools told The Dispatch they aren’t opposed to cursive — it’s just a matter of finding time for it once the new materials arrive.

For example, since 2014, third-graders must pass a reading proficiency test to advance to fourth grade. Prioritizing the preparation for that test can leave less time for other subjects, including cursive writing, typically taught when students are around the same age, Podigil said.

Scott Emery, director of elementary education for the New Albany-Plain school district, said students still learn cursive, but teachers aren’t devoting as much time to it as they did before state-mandated tests started requiring computer-typed responses. Third-graders still use handwriting workbooks to practice letter formations, he said.

Sharon Caccimelio, executive director for the Pickerington school district’s teaching and learning department, said cursive is introduced in second grade but the district has no formal curriculum beyond that.

A committee of teachers and curriculum specialists will evaluate the state’s materials when they’re ready, she said.

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@AlissaWidman