, Gloucester, MA

April 10, 2013

Reading, 'rithmetic & keyboards?

Local schools buck teaching shift

By Ray Lamont

---- — The lessons may not look or sound like the penmanship classes many readers recall from days gone by.

But, despite a growing national debate and focus on teaching the computer keyboard ahead of cursive handwriting skills, elementary students in Gloucester and in other Cape Ann schools are still very much learning and practicing skills with pens and pencils as much as digital equipment, even as schools prepare students for the digital age.

“Now, we look at it more as letter formation,” says Ellen Sibley, principal of Gloucester’s Beeman Memorial Elementary School, where second-graders Tuesday practiced their writing, printing and letter recognition skills on their personal-sized white boards, which help to guide their strokes.

“We teach (letters) in groupings — such as tall letters, the letters bellow the line,” she added. “But letter formation and recognition is still very much one of those early reading skills. It’s not as much about making the letter perfectly shaped; now the emphasis is more about correct letter formation, being able to bring up the sounds for the letter. But it’s very much a part of what we teach.”

Massachusetts is one of 45 states that has adopted new federal core teaching and learning standards that were first outlined in 2010 and put an increased focus on teaching digital skills with no mention of any cursive handwriting (see related Page 1 story).

And Massachusetts repealed its cursive writing requirement to match the standards, though the state’s Department of Education also adopted language mandating that fourth-graders should be able to “write legibly by hand, using either printing or cursive handwriting.”

Greg Bach, the former principal of East Gloucester Elementary School who now serves as the city schools’ assistant superintendent in charge of teaching and learning, said that Gloucester’s schools “have continued to maintain a standard around handwriting.”

While the state-adopted standard is that, by fourth grade, “students will write legibly by hand using either printing or handwriting,” cursive writing remains a targeted skill in city schools, he said.

At the forefront of Gloucester’s primary grade writing instruction is a program format called “Fundations.” It’s a program built around phonics and phonetic awareness for grades K-2, Bach said, and there is “a real focus on handwriting and letter formation.”

“Keyboard use is relatively limited in the early years,” Bach said, referring to kindergarten through second grade. “They’re spending more time on that in Grades 3 and 4. But they’re still spending a lot of time reading and writing by hand.

Bach indicated he has no doubt about the future of digital writing, or about the viability of studies suggesting that even a traditional signature will someday be a thing of the past, lost to “electronic signatures.” Indeed, recent questions over a city school hearing regarding school safety and security centered, at the first stage, over whether petition signatures collected through an electronic, online petition could be considered valid for submission to City Hall.

“We’d have to have a crystal ball,” Bach said. “But we certainly have an extensive program to make sure our students write legibly and accurately, and we have no plans to change that. In our elementary schools, kids are very much engaged with crayons, pencils and so forth.

“It’s still a big part of what we teach,” he said, “and what we believe in.”

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at