Atlanta Area Schools Share Their Approaches to Cursive Writing Instruction

Will my child learn cursive in school? Do I want him or her to? Knowing how Atlanta’s schools address cursive writing instruction can help answer these questions and more.

 

Pamela Smith,Georgia DOE director of Curriculum and Instruction, clarifies that allotted instruction time, resources, and curriculum are decisions left to each school or district. In Atlanta Public Schools, Mariama Tyler Jenkins, director of External Affairs, said that these decisions are not made by the district but left up to each individual school. Each school can decide how much emphasis to put on cursive instruction and there’s no state measure to ensure students are gaining the skill. A lot depends on each school’s unique circumstances, resources, and the administration’s views on cursive.

Dr. Kenneth Proctor, principal of Sarah Smith Elementary, an Atlanta charter school, says  that “because of the research on handwriting and the brain connections to learning to read, we saw a need to re-focus on [cursive].” They allow as much time as possible for instruction and practice. Group instruction takes about 30-45 minutes of class time per week and students “practice independently for approximately 10-15 minutes per day.”

Starting Before Third Grade?

Although the common core standards require initiating instruction by third grade, some schools begin introducing cursive sooner. Smith says that in her 40 years of teaching, she has found that “Children are excited to learn cursive. They can’t wait to get to it, so some schools choose to introduce cursive in the spring of second grade.” Sarah Smith Elementary is one of those schools.

But while public schools are beginning cursive instruction in or just before the third grade, some Atlanta-area schools are embracing cursive instruction as students entered school.

Montessori schools believe this is the most productive route. Dr. Myesha Green, a lead primary teacher at Arbor Montessori School, explained that cursive is a more natural transition for young children because the looped and circular motions of scribbles are already quite similar to the key motions and shapes of cursive letter formations. Green says beginning handwriting instruction with cursive significantly reduces the instances of children struggling with letter reversals. An added benefit, she says, is that many children find it faster and easier to distinguish one word from the next.

Montessori isn’t alone in this approach. Susan Orloff, owner of Children’s Special Services and an occupational therapist whose specialty is programs for children who learn differently, says many European countries teach cursive as the first (and sometimes only) form of handwriting, because research shows cursive handwriting is a key step in cognitive development, especially for young children.

Orloff, who has helped many students learn cursive and improve their writing skills, points out that “cursive takes away the need to worry about spacing” and that the frequent start-and-stop motion of printing is more challenging for young children and certain learning styles.

Brooke Hight, director of Teaching and Learning at The Westminster Schools, says the school has found “some children who had difficulty with their fine motor skills were able to write more legibly with the flow of cursive writing.”

Rather than working so hard to create the right amount of space between every letter paired with the constant pick-up-put-down motion of the pencil, the letters are already connected and grouped. Only whole words need to be spaced.

Pros and Cons of Cursive

Numerous studies have shown that strong handwriting instruction may be directly linked to more fluent reading and writing, improved spelling, and better overall reading comprehension.

Classical Education recognizes both the functional and aesthetic value of cursive, says Dr. T. O. Moore, principal of the Atlanta Classical Academy. “We find that [practicing] cursive can improve the legibility of students’ handwriting, not only in its cursive form but retroactively by improving students’ printing.” Surprisingly, he says, “This especially seems to be the case with boys.”

But he says the “ultimate reason for teaching cursive is that it is beautiful” and it has a heritage: “When one looks back into the actual letters written by people in the past, especially historical figures, one finds that people took pride in their ‘hand,’ as it was called.”

Still, not everyone agrees that cursive is a productive use of time for every student in every classroom. The SAE School, a fairly new project-based learning school in Mableton, emphasizes handwriting and engages students in many brain-based, hands-on strategies for learning manuscript, but they only teach students to sign their names in cursive. Their multisensory approach creates neural images of the words to bolster reading, spelling, and writing fluency through manuscript, and gives students a little taste of the flow and form of cursive, maybe enough that they could teach themselves if they want to master it.

Individualized Instruction

The Midtown International School (MIS) takes a different approach: handwriting instruction tailored to each student. Ande Noktes, MIS School Head and Founder, says “writing has the sole purpose of being able to communicate what’s in our minds” and with communication as the goal, “teaching handwriting (and typing) the same way to all students does not move each learner closer to being an effective communicator.”

Because of this belief, MIS teaches cursive to students who “will benefit most from the mechanics of this style” and teaches manuscript to other students. There are even some who “learn typing very early, as that will be their most effective means of communication.”

The Westminster Schools take a similar approach, teaching students all three forms and allowing them to choose their preferred method by third grade.

Most schools don’t (and can’t) take such an individualized approach, but Noktes’ method taps into something profound yet simple. This debate is raging because getting words into print form is a personal thing. There are countless reasons human beings put words to paper (or word processors), with scenarios ranging from lecture note-taking to shopping lists to social communication to artistic endeavors to various career purposes, and there are just as many styles to go with those scenarios.

Moore says he “questions the logic” of schools choosing one form of communication instruction over the other.  “Just because we use computers does not mean we do not need to learn how to write,” he says.

And when it comes to the question of children learning print or cursive, many educators are asking: Why not just teach both? Then students can decide which form helps them perform their best, once given all the tools. After all, human communication is still vital even in our modern culture, so what harm is there in generating students who have as strong a literate foundation as possible?

– Courtney Riggin

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