A 19-year-old woman who testified in the Trayvon Martin murder trial last year gained international attention when she was unable to read a letter handed to her in court because it was written in cursive.
Yet full mastery of a once fundamental skill has become less common since national standards adopted by most states do not require the instruction.
Even in Georgia, a state that added cursive to third- and fourth-grade Common Core Standards in 2011, less time is dedicated to teaching the skill, as teachers are burdened with growing instructional requirements in higher-stakes subjects.
“I know a child getting ready to go into the sixth grade that can’t write it at all,” said Richmond County Board of Education President Venus Cain. “They can’t sign their name, and that’s really bad.”
With growing concerns about the demise of basic handwriting skills, the Richmond County Board of Education’s instruction committee on Tuesday directed staff to survey elementary school principals to find out how much time is dedicated to cursive and how it is being taught.
According to the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, cursive is introduced in third grade and students should write legibly by fourth grade.
However, because it is not tested, the way it is incorporated into the curriculum is really up to the teacher, said April Benson, a fifth-grade teacher at Diamond Lakes Elementary School.
Benson said she integrates cursive as much as possible with her fifth-graders, even though it is not required by the state standards past fourth grade.
“When I’m doing a writing workshop or small-group instruction, we work on it then,” said Benson, who previously taught third and fourth grades. “It’s really, really hard. You only have so many hours in the day. You have lunch and (physical education), music and you still want to be able to do everything else that needs to be done. You have to get creative in how you teach.”
Cheri Ogden, the principal of Sue Reynolds Elementary School, said third- and fourth-grade teachers incorporate cursive instruction into lessons in other subjects but do not have time dedicated to it alone.
“Cursive is addressed through other content areas,” Ogden said. “We don’t carve out a time each day like we used to. In social studies they may be doing research where they write about a famous person, in language arts they might write a response to literature in essay answers – even in math now there’s an amazing amount of writing.”
Rickey Lumpkin, the principal at Wilkinson Gardens Elementary School, said the same is done at his school. With standardized tests focused on math, reading, social studies, science and language arts, and new teacher evaluations being partially based on those scores, Lumpkin said those areas must be educators’ priorities.
“There are only X amount of minutes in a day,” Lumpkin said. “Cursive writing is something that our parents and their generation had to communicate, where the child of today doesn’t necessarily have that as their only means of communication. I have some beautiful letters that my wife wrote me when I was in the military telling me about her love and how much she missed me, but today, I don’t think I would have gotten those letters.”
Board member Barbara Pulliam said she wants to ensure the skill is being emphasized in elementary grades so the school system is not producing high school students who cannot sign their names.
On Tuesday, the board said they expect a response from the surveys by next month’s meeting to evaluate how to remediate students who might not have mastered cursive.
“I know this is the age of technology, but let’s not forget basic education,” Pulliam said. “If you look at any legal document, it’s something you need. Your signature is unique to you.”