Is Illinois Cursive Requirement In Schools Working? | WBEZ
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Is Illinois' Cursive Mandate In Schools Producing Cursive Scribes?

In Amy Stewart’s class at Fox Meadow Elementary in west suburban Elgin, fifth graders learned cursive every week this year, tracing over words and practicing their own freehand. And, by the end of the year, students were able to write essays in cursive.

“It takes such a small amount of time to teach it, but the benefits are so great,” Stewart said. “And they go well beyond the four walls of my classroom.”

It’s important for kids to be able to write their signature, Stewart said, and she hopes to pass on enthusiasm for communicating in ways other than via text.

“It’s kind of becoming a lost art,” she said. “I feel like when kids can read in cursive, they’re almost deciphering some sort of ancient language.”

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In an effort to help keep cursive alive, Illinois this year joined 23 other states that mandate cursive writing lessons. Illinois requires at least one unit in elementary school. As the first year of the mandate draws to a close, Illinois’ cursive conscripts are asking an existential question: Will I ever use this?

Eleven-year-old Noah Ekstrom isn’t so sure.

“It’s a fun journey seeing how my cursive progressed from like five letters to the entire alphabet,” Noah said, though he rarely writes cursive outside of school.

“Sometimes, I will get letters but it’s not very often,” said Noah, who prefers to print. “If I do get a birthday card, it would be written in cursive.”

Reading cursive also can be a chore. When Noah tests his skills on a card written by an actual grandmother, he can read it but with a bit of difficulty.

If he’s struggling with grandma cursive now, will his skills hold up when it’s no longer required?

Cursive after elementary school

On a recent afternoon outside Lane Tech High School on Chicago’s North Side, a couple of sophomore girls tried to read the same grandmother card and failed.

They said they learned cursive in elementary school, but they’ve mostly forgotten it and haven’t used it since.

Other students, though, haven’t lost their cursive knowledge. They’ve kept with it to read cards they get from — you guessed it — grandma.

Or for other quintessential teen reasons.

“I only use it if I’m trying to be efficient or look cool,” said one junior boy.

In the past, the Illinois State Board of Education left it up to school districts to add cursive to the curriculum. But in recent years, some schools had started dropping it. So Illinois legislators passed a law in 2017 mandating cursive. The goal is to make sure kids can write their signatures and read historical documents.

A second grader practices her cursive at Steeple Run Elementary School in Naperville in 2017.
Linda Lutton/WBEZ
A second grader practices her cursive at Steeple Run Elementary School in Naperville in 2017.

Sheila Lowe is a California-based handwriting analyst who is an advocate for cursive learning. She said the 24 states that passed cursive laws did it because people are seeing the importance of keeping it alive. She said there’s nothing wrong with smartphones and computers, but those can’t be the only modes of communication.

“Writing is a much more personal way of communicating,” she said. “Wouldn’t you rather have a love letter that’s written by somebody in pen and ink than texted?”

“That’s cursive, isn’t it?”

Marie Donovan is an associate professor of teacher education at DePaul University who teaches early literacy instruction. Starting on the first day of class, she writes in cursive on the board for her students. Donovan said she gets a lot of blank stares.

“Many of them look and say, ‘that’s cursive isn’t it?’” she said. “They know it’s cursive, but they cannot read it. They cannot figure out what the letters are.”

Donovan said handwriting is important for the brain’s development. She said some countries even teach cursive as early as preschool when fine motor control is developing.

“It’s a lot easier for them to write because when you write in cursive, you don’t have to lift up from the paper a lot,” she said.

Donovan is a big fan of cursive, but she was opposed to the state law because she felt it micromanaged teachers. She thought it should have been left up to each school district to decide. But now that the law is in place, she’s glad that it’s at least got people talking about how to sustain cursive.

“How are you going to reinforce it?” she asked. “Because if you aren’t reinforcing it, then you just wasted instructional time.”

Donovan hopes kids can keep up their skills beyond elementary school — and beyond cards from grandma.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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