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April 6, 2013

Area teachers: Standards add emphasis on keyboard use

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — “I was so excited to learn to write all the letters,” Riverside Elementary School third-grader Julia Rissberger said after her cursive writing Friday afternoon.

Riverside Principal Melinda Murdock said cursive writing is taught in the Oneonta City School District to students in Julia’s grade. Other schools interviewed on the subject said that third grade is the key year for teaching the process.

There was a time when cursive handwriting was taught as part of an ongoing process, but it’s not necessary, Murdock said. The current system is working well and it has allowed more time to teach state requirements.

For cursive instruction, the teacher sets aside about 15 to 20 minutes per day during the school year, showing students such techniques as forming letters and linking them. Teachers will help students in the upper grades but they don’t provide the drill instruction third-graders have, he said.

In recent years, there’s been less emphasis on penmanship, because the state curriculum requirements demand more time be spent on areas such as expressive writing and critical skills, she said. State testing is also requiring better computer than penmanship skills, she said. By the time students move to middle school they are able to express their ideas three different ways — printing, cursive, and keyboard.

However students are still eager to learn the cursive writing process, Murdock said.

Rissberger said she knew how to write her name and a few letters at the start of the school year but the skill is helping her read letters other members of the family write to her. Before that, her mother had to read them to her.

Jack Gustafson, also in third grade, said having the skills is “like moving a step up in life.”

At Laurens Central School, third grade teacher June Townsend said she has been using the same handwriting program for the more than 35 years she has been teaching. About eight years ago, the school started the same system in grades four to six as a follow-up, Superintendent Romona Wenck said.

It’s important to teach it well because the brain learns differently using cursive writing, she said. It’s a much better way to express thoughts, she said, and it stimulates the brain in different ways and helps in reading.

People are using less and less cursive because of the importance of computers in education, but they won’t always be available, Wenck said.

But handwriting is still important.

“When you sign your name people need to be able to read it,” she said. If schools don’t teach penmanship, she said, there is no other place for students to learn the skill they need to take notes in college, for instance.

Townsend said she allots about 15 minutes a day to the subject. She would like more, but with all the state requirements, that is the best that can be done.

“I think kids are very excited to be learning it,” she said. Most have the fine motor skills to handle it, she said, and if not, the occupational therapist can help.

Margaretville Central School Superintendent Anthony Albanese said students get formal training in cursive in third grade, but practice continues as students progress through school. In middle school, there’s a writing workshop where students spend time reading and writing by hand.

It’s an important part of the curriculum but the growing importance of technology is having an impact on that, he said.

“Times are changing and kids need to communicate in a variety of ways,” he said. “They are all tools you want to add to your toolbox.”

As the state moves its assessments from paper to computers, typing skills will grow in importance, he said. There is a lot to gain, but “we have to be careful of what we lose. Any well-rounded educational program will provide as many opportunities as possible.”

At Jefferson Central School, Superintendent Carl Mummenthey said cursive is taught to students in third-grade though “we realize there are fewer and fewer expectations for formal cursive writing in their adult lives.”

During the eight years that he has been at Jefferson “the balance has shifted.”

As much as he considers himself a traditionalist, “it will be less and less important” as more time is spent getting students college- or workforce-ready, he said.