OTTUMWA — Parents attending school 30 years ago knew penmanship was important. But their kids may not see why they should study penmanship — nor may they have to.
"It's that whole ongoing debate as far as teaching cursive writing," said Davis Eidahl, superintendent of the Ottumwa school district. "With the emphasis on keyboarding, educators have asked themselves [whether] cursive writing is as necessary [as in the past.]"
In Ottumwa, they teach both handwriting and keyboarding.
"It's not to replace anything, but we know in today's world, they're going to be asked to keyboard," said Missy Carson-Roark, principal of Horace Mann Elementary School. "We get kids in the computer lab in kindergarten. They are exposed to the keyboard, the mouse and how to access information on computers. By second grade, we're asking them to type. But we're still working on handwriting. We continue to embed that [requirement beginning] in third grade."
But there's only so much time to teach, and Eidahl acknowledged that there may be less emphasis placed on writing long-hand than there was in the past.
"How much time do you spend, especially with [federal testing mandates demanding only] higher math and reading scores, teachers want every possible minute for other teaching [more in line with] the Iowa core. There is a debate in education."
“The debate is national,” said Steve Berlin, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Last September, the association issued a policy statement. Titled “The Handwriting Debate,” it acknowledged the impact of digital technology on writing and reading: “(W)ith the proliferation of personal computers in the 1990s and smartphones and tablets in the 21st century, many educators and policymakers have been questioning the usefulness of spending ever-more-valuable class time teaching handwriting to students who have been born into — and will live and work in — a digital world.”
But the policy also acknowledged that “new research has been emerging that points to the educational value of handwriting in ways that go well beyond being able to read cursive or take notes without ... a handheld device.”
"Cursive was designed to help speed the process of writing," said Eidahl. "But nowadays, even as an adult, if you've got to get something done fast, you go to a keyboard. I think you'll find less emphasis on cursive writing. Not that it's not taught. Less emphasis."
Typing and keyboarding used to be taught in seventh grade. Now they want their students skilled in home row-style typing by the end of fourth grade.
"We want our kids to be able to compete in the work world and find information," said Carson-Roark. "We need to make sure kids have those keyboarding skills so they can operate in a 21st century world."
A recent poll by Xerox Mortgage Services predicts that by 2016, half of all home loans will be closed electronically without an actual signature.
Yet an Indiana University neuroscientist, Karin Harman James, studied the effect of printing and writing by hand as well as keyboarding in the development of children’s brains. The research led her to believe teaching young children how to write by hand is critical to how they eventually learn to read.
"These kinds of findings point to there being something really important about printing and potentially also about cursive," said James. “They’re both fine motor skills, so they might be equally important in understanding cognitive development in children.”
A National Association of State Boards of Education report released last fall found the average third-grader was getting only 15 minutes of handwriting instruction a day, down from the standard 30 to 45 minutes a generation ago.
“If kids aren’t taught how to write it, they won’t be able to read it,” said Indiana State Sen. Jean Leising. “So, in a sense, we’ll be creating a new kind of illiteracy.”