Pen to Paper: Law brings cursive writing back to the classroom

Pen to Paper: Law brings cursive writing back to the classroom
Updated: Feb. 20, 2017 at 6:05 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - When it comes to writing, digital devices make it easy and fast. They even serve as the spelling police, and the convenience causes more and more people to nearly write off penmanship.

Ask people about cursive writing and it's barely a part of their lexicon.

"No, I think I lost that in third grade, yeah, after third grade, yeah 1990, 1993 maybe. Yeah, after that cursive was not even taught to me," said A.J. Nunez.

Sure, we've come a long way since John Hancock's bold signature stood out on the Declaration of Independence, but erasing old school writing entirely may end up cheating you.

"I'm one of those 'listers,' you know, I keep lists said State Sen. Beth Mizell of Franklinton, LA.

She said like most, she uses digital technology, but she also makes a point of writing in script by hand every day.  Mizell said words spoken by a voter she met along the campaign trail made an indelible impression.

"[He] mentioned to me that, if you get elected would you make sure that kids could read cursive…he was looking at old land documents, and when he would hire high schoolers, they couldn't read the notes of the documents," Mizell said.

At the state Capitol in Baton Rouge, her legislation to accomplish that quickly elicited jokes.

"There were mentions of let's go back to the Magna Carta type things," she said.

Ribbing by colleagues aside, Mizell's bill eventually attracted co-sponsors, final legislative approval and eventually the governor's signature.

On July 1, Act 482 takes effect. It mandates that all Louisiana public schools, including charters, teach cursive writing by the third grade and have it incorporated into the curriculum of grades four to 12.

"We're talking about an uppercase M," said a teacher at Alice Harte, an InspireNOLA Charter school, as he instructed his second-grade students.

The students have a head start as they are already learning cursive writing.

"We value all parts of writing, and this is not say that other schools don't, it's just that we've performed very well in the way of English, language arts scores, and part of what we do to prepare them has a lot to do with penmanship and reading for understanding and re-producing what you've read," said Robert Hill, head of school at Alice Harte, a campus serving nearly 800 students.

The Louisiana Department of Education said prior to the passage of the law each local school district could choose whether to teach cursive writing and some schools did.

"I think we started to push children too young to use all these devices," said Dr. Arend Van Gemmert, director of the Fine Motor Control and Learning Laboratory in the School of Kinesiology within the College of Human Sciences and Education at LSU Baton Rouge.

Van Gemmert explains what fine motor skills involve.

"That means pointing, grasping, writing, drawing, speaking," he said.

He believes students will benefit from the law.

"Children need to learn how to type as well, but that should be a little bit later. They should actually start with handwriting," said Van Gemmert, whose own research centers around the control of fine motor tasks.

Writing by hand gives the human brain a workout.

"When you are writing you are using your wrist and your fingers that means that about 20 to 22 different joints you are trying to control, the brain is really hard working for this," Van Gemmert stated.

Some research suggests handwriting pays off., indicating that the handwriting experience is important for letter processing in regions of the brain critical to successful reading.

"Handwriting and in particular cursive handwriting is more fluent, and so the fluency helps you actually to go faster. And it has been shown that if you write faster that can also, you start to read faster, that has been shown with children the correlations," Van Gemmert said.

"I remember in elementary school we were all so proud to show off our signature and we would put an extra flourish or whatever because it was unique to us," Mizell said.

An educator jogging in City Park weighed in on the new law.

"I think it's good. Kids are interested about cursive, they ask about it, they see that their parents write in cursive, and some of them are even mimicking cursive," said Jennifer Barkley.

And cursive writing is not only helpful to children, but it can be beneficial to the brains of adults.

"Adults it helps as well because it helps us to memorize a few more things and also if we are active it helps us to keep more in shape and to also be cognitively in shape," said Van Gemmert.

Mizell seemed to know so firsthand.

"If you write a grocery list in cursive you can usually forget the list because it kind of somehow put inside your brain," she said.

Other research found in the Journal Psychological Science suggests that using computers to take notes may impair learning.  Researchers said students who took notes via laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than those who wrote by hand.

When asked about the last time he had written in cursive, another man, Preston Bourlet said, "Ah, this morning…I took notes in class."

Bourlet said he finds it easier to write by hand than type on a keyboard.

Mizell said her new law is not about getting students to abandon their digital devices.

"Our young people are capable of doing both," she said.

At Alice Harte School, the new law will force some adjustments.

"What we need to do and what we will have to put in place is a system where we re-enforce it from fourth to eighth grade, so in that way we will have to make a few changes," said Hill.

The state Department of Education also said that the law does not direct it to monitor compliance, instead the legal mandate is to local school systems.

"It's just a skill that we want the students to have," said Mizell.

"I do anticipate additional costs, but not necessarily in staffing as so much in preparing our staff and developing them to reinforce cursive writing through their middle-school career," said Hill.

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