Handwriting instruction is not what it used to be

Jane Hawes
Michael Dyer works on his handwriting at Glendenning Elementary School.

And chances are this statement about cursive handwriting either bothers you deeply or strikes you as a simple fact of modern life.

It's no secret that handwriting instruction is not what it used to be in our schools. The Common Core State Standards are the controversial new educational guidelines for kindergarten through Grade 12. Most of the 45 states that will be rolling out these standards in public schools next school year de-emphasize handwriting instruction to the extent that many schools have ceased teaching handwriting as its own subject and many do not teach cursive writing at all.

It's not that teachers and students aren't still interested.

"They want to learn cursive," said Abby Farris, a second-grade teacher at Glacier Ridge Elementary School in Dublin. "I keep worksheets in the room for them."

But the reality, Farris said, is two-fold: There is little room in standardized-test driven classrooms for handwriting instruction, but there is also little need in a technology-driven world to teach it anymore.

"If something has to go, it's going to be handwriting," Farris said.

But handwriting does have its advocates. Columbus is home to Zaner-Bloser, one of the oldest and best known handwriting-instruction publishers in the world. In 2012, the company sponsored an educational summit that addressed the relevancy of handwriting instruction today. Among the research presented were studies that linked students' overall ability to learn and acquire language to handwriting instruction.

"Some people think it's just an art form," said Kathleen Wright, Zaner-Bloser's handwriting product manager. "But it's so much more than that. (Handwriting) is one of the few fine-motor skill activities that take place in the classroom. That attention to detail, it's been proven it helps kids learn better. And you want to give children all the skills and tools they need to learn."

In the Groveport Madison Schools district, occupational therapist Lisa Miles has become an activist for handwriting.

"I get so many kids referred to me for OT (occupational therapy)," Miles said, "who just can't write because they haven't been instructed in it."

Miles said she believes learning handwriting isn't just about writing legibly.

"The studies show that the kids who are better in kindergarten with fine-motor (skills) are the kids who do better in academics," Miles said.

The Groveport Madison district leaves it up to individual teachers to decide how much effort to put into penmanship. Miles has enlisted first-grade teacher Andrea Murphy from Glendening Elementary School to pilot a program that combines handwriting instruction with fine-motor skill development.

Several times a week, Murphy said, she will start the school day off with a unit of focused work. During a recent morning in January, the 24 students spent time doing "sky writing" with their index fingers to get warmed up. They did a wide range of dexterity exercises - stringing letter beads on thread, picking up objects with tweezers, moving magnets along a map - activities that Miles explained wake up and develop the muscles needed for writing.

"There's a misconception with parents that doing video games helps (fine-motor skills)," Murphy said, "but it doesn't."

In and around the warm-up drills, the students did writing exercises in their workbooks. Murphy and Miles moved around the room, more often than not adjusting how a child was sitting at his or her desk.

"The sitting position," Murphy shook her head with a smile, "that's one of the hardest battles I face."