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Thumbs up on handwriting in NH schools

Special to the Sunday News

January 19. 2013 11:25PM
Claire and Oriah Holmes, 6-year-old twins, practice making letters at their family’s kitchen table in Keene. (MELANIE PLENDA)

KEENE - Bethany Maynard leans over her kitchen table to spy the work of her 6-year-old twins, Oriah and Claire Holmes. Oriah screws up her face as she listens intently to her mom's instructions. Maynard tells her about capitalizing the first letter of each word and how to make the round parts of the lower letters.

Claire sticks out her tongue sideways and sets to work, with Oriah quickly following suit.

"I think handwriting is important," Maynard said. "Although it likely is not always going to be."

Across the modern world, people are using their thumbs to tap out text on mobile devices, seemingly making the art of handwriting superfluous. But Maynard, a teacher at Monadnock Regional High School, said she wants her children, including toddler Phoebe, to learn the print and cursive version of handwriting while recognizing that someday the tight curls and swirls of cursive may go the way of the dodo.

"Even though the majority of the papers that I collect from my students are done by a keyboard," she said. "I still do write on the board in class, for example. So it's still important that they know how to read it."

And as the little-known National Handwriting Day approaches - this Wednesday - it might be worth noting that the Common Core Curriculum has a technology component but no mandatory handwriting component.

"The Common Core tells you what the students need, but not what to teach or how to teach it," said Patricia Ewen, early childhood consultant for the New Hampshire Department of Education. "It doesn't require you to teach cursive, but if you do teach cursive, it doesn't tell you when. But it does say that your students need to be able to write."

In fact, Ewen said, before the Common Core Curriculum existed, there was a handwriting curriculum, but districts were allowed to decide for themselves how much emphasis to place on handwriting. For many districts, she said, the lessons are wrapped into language arts classes. She said first- and second-graders are still taught to print, and for the most part, third-graders are still taught cursive.

"Where 50 years ago we talked about the progressions of print and then we went to the progressions of cursive writing," Ewen said, "... now we just talk about it in the context of letter formation, so that's a little bit of an evolution."

Part of that shift, she said, has to do with the changes in the definition of "literacy,'' which includes reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing, the latter to accommodate technological updates.

"It's not a separate content area," Ewen said. "For instance, science is a content area, and there are expectations, but there isn't a separate content area for chemistry, physics, biology; they're all within the same category of science, so same goes with handwriting."

And whereas students 50 years ago would spend 30 minutes just working on handwriting and penmanship - a source of pride for some students - in SAU 29, for example, teachers spend about 15 minutes a day teaching handwriting.

"It's definitely losing it's place in terms of a mandatory experience," said Wayne Woolridge, superintendent of SAU 29, which includes Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland.

"But we certainly see the motor-skill value to it, and you know most people still make a grocery list. I mean there are still opportunities for people to use handwriting, so we don't think of handwriting as going the way of the dinosaur. We think of handwriting as something that will be around, but it definitely has lost it's place as a mandatory thing that students have to master by the end of third grade."

The importance of handwriting instruction is being debated nationally. Ewen said there is some talk about getting rid of cursive in other districts, although it's just talk at this point. About three years ago, the Bedford School District set up a committee to look at doing away with the cursive curriculum altogether, but ultimately decided against it, said Chip McGee, assistant superintendent of curriculum and assessment for the district.

The main reason for keeping handwriting, he said, was that creating letters on a page does a lot to solidify students' reading skills by forcing letter-sound correspondence.

Ewen said there are valid points on both sides of the debate. For one thing, teaching cursive is time consuming; on the flip side, learning cursive helps a person pick up speed in writing.

"We do have schools in our state where kids are not learning cursive, and they get to the middle school and the teacher is writing on the chalkboard or the smart board and the students can't read it," Ewen said.

Other factors play a part in the debate. On some level, it's tradition, and people aren't always good with change. Further, knowing how to read cursive allows people to be able to translate historical texts, usually written in cursive.

And then there's just practicality, said Ewen.

"There are times when the electronic tool is costly, there are times when the electronic tool is out of power, and there are times when it is simply less efficient."

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