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Handwriting on the wall for cursive? Teachers say, 'No'
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

In this age of texting, All Saints Academy teacher Chris Corbett says children at the Naperville school benefit from learning how to write by hand.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Handwriting experts say that making the loops required of cursive writing stimulates parts of the brain that don't get turned on by punching phone keys with your thumbs.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/8/2010 12:32 PM

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It was harsh news to lay on an 8-year-old.

At the desk next to mine, Lynne Garing's cursive-writing exercise boasted an unbroken, uniform series of loops that looked like a Slinky. My lopsided loops looked like a Slinky that had been involved in an ownership dispute between badgers.

"You'll never get a job," my second-grade teacher Mrs. Hennefant informed me as she dropped a D onto my report card, "because no one can read your cursive handwriting."

That I now have a job writing doesn't ruin her point. My handwriting is awful -- so bad I don't dare let one of my notebooks sit for a day or I won't be able to read what I wrote. There are times when my grocery list says tomatoes, and I come home with potatoes.

My wife has artistically bad handwriting, like Pablo Picasso, where everything she writes looks like an earthquake measurement on a Richter scale _ a series of small humps with an occasional eruption of a flourished T (although maybe it's a loop on her capital H). My bad handwriting looks exactly as it did when Mrs. Hennefant used it as a predictor of future failure.

But if Smith Corona and its erasable typewriter ribbon rescued me from cursive abyss, how important can legible loops be to a generation of text-happy kids who literally are all thumbs when it comes to the written word?

"I would say they don't think it's important," concedes Chris Corbett, a first-grade teacher at All Saints Academy in Naperville. "I don't know how many people actually write in cursive anymore because everything is typed. You don't even have to write a check anymore."

But writing by hand is important for many reasons, says Corbett, whose class is part of a national study on handwriting.

"There is a connection between handwriting instruction and all the other language skills," says Rand Nelson, CEO of Peterson Directed Handwriting, which has been teaching cursive handwriting skills since 1908.

When Nelson, who has been with the company since 1976, talks about cursive-handwriting elements such as loop tops, roll tops, undercurves or rocks, he speaks with the knowledge and love of a father discussing his children.

The fluency, motor skills, spatial relationships, muscle memory and dynamic patterns that occur when a kid moves a pencil across a paper stimulate parts of the brain that aren't used in typing or texting, Nelson says. A student who masters cursive can concentrate on the word choices during an essay, and not on the physical act of writing.

"Yet, the vast majority of teachers have received no training on how to teach motor skills," Nelson says. "They stuck it in the closet 30 years ago."

A recent "resurgence" in handwriting instruction has been fueled by private schools and home-schoolers, Nelson says.

While her first-graders know the QWERTY keyboard and can log onto their computers without looking at the keyboard, Corbett makes the children print letters by hand three times a week. She asks the boys and girls to write as many legible letters as they can in 20 seconds.

"At the end of last year, many of the kids could do the whole alphabet and then some," says Corbett, 63, who credits the nuns of her grade-school years for teaching her the value of handwritten cards and letters. Even if a computer program lets you type letters in a fancy script font, that's not the same as a handwritten letter.

"If I write a letter, everybody knows it's my handwriting before they even open the envelope. It's very recognizable," Corbett says.

"We still make writing a major part of their development," says All Saints third-grade teacher Donna Gudanick, who adds that her students even get excited about writing in cursive. "It's a necessary tool I don't think we'll ever give up."

That philosophy comes from the top.

"While I know people feel this is archaic, I think this is an important fine motor skill that children still need," says principal Sandy Renehan.

With texting, e-vites, iPads and even online grocery lists usurping realms where handwriting once ruled, it's easy to imagine a world where handwriting becomes the sole domain of bank robbers' hasty holdup notes.

"I wouldn't want to see in 20 years what's left," Corbett says mournfully. But she is doing her part to keep handwriting alive.

"Maybe we won't have to write anything anymore," Corbett says, "but these kids will know how to do it."