A defense of cursive, from a 10-year-old national champion

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A defense of cursive, from a 10-year-old national champion
Students practice their cursive writing in their fifth grade classroom at the Academy of our Lady of Grace in Fairview, N.J., on Dec. 9, 2019. Edbert Aquino, a student at the school, is a national handwriting champion from New Jersey, where a lawmaker wants all public schools to teach the skill again. Bryan Anselm/The New York Times.

by Tracey Tully

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- A fifth grader in New Jersey is a master of curlicues and connecting loops. His technique is so good he was named a state and national champion of a dying art: cursive writing, a skill that once seemed destined to go the way of the typewriter.

The boy, Edbert Aquino, who is 10, took home last year’s national trophy, $500 and bragging rights for his Roman Catholic elementary school in Bergen County.

But competition for the prize might just get stiffer in New Jersey.

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Jersey City, has introduced legislation that would require public schools to again teach a skill that had been phased out across the country, but is now enjoying something of a revival.

Like many students in New Jersey, McKnight’s son had never been taught cursive writing. Tasks she considers fundamental were beyond him: autographing a yearbook; endorsing a check; signing an application.

So she bought a workbook and taught him at home. “I wanted him to be able to sign his name,” she said. “It’s a life skill.”

The proliferation of computers and screens, coupled with the advent of rigorous Common Core standards and new demands on teachers, had led to a gradual disappearance of cursive instruction across the nation. In New Jersey, public schools have not been required to teach handwriting since 2010.

To many people who recall being berated for their illegible writing, the disappearance of cursive is nothing to lament.

“As an exercise, writing things by hand is up there with cobbling shoes and shoeing horses,” a columnist, Alexandra Petri, wrote in 2012 in The Washington Post.

“Why is the world so cruel?” Christopher Borrelli, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote last year.

“My thoughts turned to the children, the poor darlings, who must be scared and confused now, wondering what they did to tick off the gods of education,” he wrote. “They can’t have cupcakes in class, but they can have cursive.”

In spite of the ample fodder it has provided humor writers, teachers may end up getting the last laugh.

Kathleen Wright, who worked for Zaner-Bloser, a company that publishes cursive workbooks and sponsored the national competition, said 24 states now required some form of cursive instruction, including seven that had adopted policies since 2013.

“After they got rid of handwriting, now they’re all rediscovering it,” said Virginia Berninger, a retired University of Washington professor who has conducted research on the ways children learn when using print or script. “People mistakenly assumed because we had computers we didn’t need handwriting. We need both.”

Putting a pencil or pen to paper helps form an impression in a child’s brain and is beneficial for early literacy, regardless of whether the letters are printed or written in script, Berninger said. But her studies have shown a connection between the linked letters in cursive writing and improved spelling proficiency.

“We think those connecting strokes help children link the letters into word units, which helps their spelling,” she said. Handwriting, she said, also allows children to write fluidly and quickly, which can lead to longer stories and essays.

Edbert, who was declared a national winner as a third grader, said that when he does use cursive, he is forced to slow down, which allows his ideas to flow more freely and helps with creativity. “If I’m, like, handwriting it, I just tend to write better,” he said.

Still, even Edbert said he would prefer to use a computer (and spell-check) for long assignments. “I can type faster than I can write,” he said.

New Jersey school districts still have the option of teaching cursive, according to the state School Boards Association, which has not taken a position on McKnight’s bill. And an informal survey done in 2012 by the association found that many schools still did.

To enter the nationwide competition among third graders, Edbert and his classmates wrote a sentence that contained every letter in the alphabet, known as a pangram: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Filomena D’Amico, the principal of Edbert’s school, the Academy of Our Lady of Grace in Fairview, said students practiced printing or handwriting immediately after lunch. “It calms the students down,” D’Amico said. “They unwind.”

Tamara Plakins Thornton, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said this was not the first time in the country’s history when schools had turned with renewed interest to cursive writing, which she considered obsolete.

Plakins Thornton, who wrote the book “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History,” said the pendulum tended to swing back toward cursive instruction during times of cultural upheaval. She pointed to the early 1900s, with its influx of immigrants, and the 1960s, when America was roiled by the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution, as two of the biggest heydays for cursive instruction.

“Cursive — it’s all about following rules,” she said. “Whenever the present looks scary and the future looks worse, we tend to want to go running back to the past.”

She added, “It’s a countercultural rebellion. I think it’s a conservative backlash against cultural change.”

Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee have all passed legislation since 2013 requiring the instruction of handwriting, Wright said.

The proposed legislation faces an uncertain future in New Jersey, where teachers are already asked to help children reach greater levels of proficiency in core subjects like English.

“Teachers are inundated with so much to get through,” said Shannon Keogh, who has taught third and fourth grade in public schools in Orange, New Jersey, and now teaches math in the district. “To add another thing — that kids are really never going to use — is kind of silly.”

“The signature,” Keogh, a mother of four, added, “is probably going to be a thing of the past by the time our kids will ever sign a mortgage.”

But Knight believes cursive instruction could still be interwoven into the English or history classes, and would not take away significant time from academic instruction.

At Our Lady of Grace, D’Amico said assignments are sometimes done on computers, and turned in electronically, while others must be written in cursive and turned in on paper, forcing students to unplug.

“We can disconnect them for a bit from the technology,” she said. “I think it’s a healthy combination.”

Edbert is hoping to become a doctor — in spite of his perfect penmanship.

“They have to write out their observations, and they have to do it in a time crunch. So it can get a little messy,” he said. “I’ll try to write neatly so my patients can understand.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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