Second-grade teacher Diane Arciero waves her hand – draped in a homemade, white bunny puppet – from side to side in time to "If You're Happy and You Know It" playing on her classroom's CD player. As the song reaches its familiar refrain, the 24 students in her class at Boston's Hugh R. O'Donnell Elementary School join in singing with her and the bunny: "Where do you start your letter? At the top!" they shout, pointing index fingers in the air in unison.
It's hardly the handwriting instruction most American adults grew up with, but cursive traditionalists are happy to see any type of instruction. Their revered written art is an endangered species given the rise of computers, the growing proportion of class time spent preparing for standardized tests, and the increasing perception that cursive writing is a difficult and pointless exercise. Yet new evidence suggests there are benefits to mastering this skill – including higher SAT scores – that don't appear until long after traditional instruction ends in fifth grade. It's a controversial claim.
Cursive's proponents point to less-practical benefits as well. The romantic allure, for one. "When you look in Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, you don't see printed invitations," says Janie Cravens, who taught for 25 years in Alabama and Georgia. "Despite what many people seem to think these days, there's still demand for calligraphers and people who can write in cursive beautifully." She is vice president of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting based in Webster, N.Y.
"You still need to be able to write a signature and a personal thank-you note as well as read cursive," says Cathy Van Haute, a pediatric occupational consultant. And "you can't tell me everyone has easy access to a computer."
Robert Martin, principal of O'Donnell Elementary, agrees. "It's a dangerous path to go down if the only way you can communicate or record information is electronically or with printed letters. Cursive teaches things like how letters connect and a different type of hand-eye coordination that's important."
Cursive enthusiasts also point to recent College Board data on the new writing section of the SATs, introduced in 2006. The data indicate that the 15 percent of students who wrote their essay in cursive did slightly better than those who used some other type of handwriting. Cursive proponents say this is because those writing in cursive could write faster, allowing them to write longer essays.
Steve Graham is skeptical of such a conclusion. The special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., says "It's like saying there's been a rise in peanut butter sales in New York and a rise in mental illness, therefore peanut butter causes mental illness," he says.
Professor Graham says the issue isn't what kind of handwriting is taught, but that children learn to be fluent in some type of transcription. He points to studies where two groups of people were given the same essay to grade. One group got an essay written in poor, but legible handwriting; the other, an essay in more attractive handwriting (not necessarily cursive). The essay with the more attractive handwriting received a better grade.
But the most efficient way for anyone, including children, to record their thoughts, Graham says, is at a keyboard. He recommends more elementary schools buy computers with keyboards designed for children's hands. Typing should be a key way that children communicate.
"Your hands aren't fast enough to keep up with your mind," Graham says, "especially for a first grader who can write between nine and 18 letters a minute. Typing uses a different, slightly easier motor skill. If they spend less time thinking about their handwriting and more time writing,... they will have longer compositions and better grammar and planning."
Others share his sentiment that teaching cursive should not be sacrosanct.
"Schools are reflective of our society in general," says Barbara Willer, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "We spend less time doing things like writing notes to each other since there are other tools available to us to communicate, and curriculums need to reflect that."
Kate Gladstone is a "handwriting repair expert" in New York. She is not surprised to see cursive going the way of the dinosaur, with only 15 percent of adults using cursive after high school. She's not disappointed. She disagrees with the idea that students should first learn to print and then to write in cursive.
"You don't teach someone English by first teaching them Chinese," Ms. Gladstone says. "We need to decide what the best way to handwrite is and just teach that."
That does not sit well with cursive traditionalists. "Handwriting is an emotionally charged issue," Gladstone adds. "I get letters from people calling me anti-American because I don't like what they think of as 'proper' cursive."
Gladstone promotes italic cursive, which she says is the fastest, most natural, and most easily readable form of handwriting. It's also the easiest and quickest to teach children, she says. She also claims it's the fastest-growing way to teach handwriting: 7 percent of students are learning this method, compared with 1 percent ten years ago. For homeschoolers, that number is 1 in 3, she says.
She recommends traditional cursive be an elective that children could take after elementary school if they wanted to.
That idea has no appeal for O'Donnell Elementary's Dr. Martin. Back when he was a middle-school principal, he realized many students couldn't read cursive, let alone write it. "I said, 'If I ever get to be an elementary school principal, I'm doing something about this,' " he says. That's why he recently introduced Handwriting Without Tears and the "magic bunny" to his school, which he found to be an effective and fun method.
"We're used to thinking about nuns rapping the knuckles of kids who couldn't write the perfectly shaped letter.... I remember when I was a kid, we had the Palmer Method...." He recalls the rote cursive instruction and copying upper- and lower-case letters pinned to a board at the front of the classroom.
The Palmer and Zaner-Bloser penmanship methods ruled the day for decades. Students spent 45 minutes every day on handwriting. Penmanship was a separate grade on report cards. Today, handwriting instruction might get 10 or 15 minutes a few times a week. Keyboarding skills are taught much earlier, now.
But in this era of standardized testing, Gladstone says, teachers need to train their charges to express themselves quickly with a pen or pencil. And that means italic cursive, to her.
"Students need to be able to write about 100 letters a minute on these tests," she says, "but I know a lot of high schoolers can only do 30 per minute."
It may be too late to halt cursive's decline. Fewer and fewer teachers today know how to write cursive themselves.
"I've actually seen teachers give cursive instruction by saying, 'Just follow the book,' " Gladstone says. "And when a child asks the teacher to demonstrate it herself, she'll say, 'I'll try, but I'm really not so good at this.' How can we expect kids to learn cursive if the teachers have trouble with it?" A recent study Graham conducted on handwriting instruction found that only 12 percent of teachers had taken a course in how to teach handwriting.
Instead of focusing on what type of handwriting is best, Graham suggests that schools concentrate on improving students' handwriting, period, whatever it is.
"Two out of three kids in this country do not write well enough for their classroom work," he says. "Handwriting is a small part of the overall writing picture."