By ANDREA KIESLING
Teach Plus New Mexico
In our home, we have a framed letter written by a Civil War soldier to his mother. That letter has been passed down for generations in my mother-in-law‘s family. In it, the soldier talks about the hardships of war and describes the fields around him near Riley Knob in North Carolina, telling his mother that “there is lots of pine and cedar and some of the clearest streams of water [sic] I ever saw.”
The soldier goes on to say that he‘s tired of marching and wishes the war would close. It’s a mundane letter—no juicy gossip about a spy in the ranks or harrowing journeys to save his platoon—and an incredible piece of personal and our nation’s history.
The downside is that the entire letter is written in cursive. That’s not a problem for me or my husband because we both learned cursive in elementary school. On the other hand, our daughter can’t read or write in cursive. While she is an A student, I can’t help but think that she‘s missing out.
In 2020, the New Mexico Public Education Department determined the Science of Reading to be the primary literacy instructional approach. Part of using this research-backed instruction is learning how to form letters, to write. The letters p,q,b, and d all look the same in print (don’t believe me? Write them down right now on scrap paper) but different in cursive. In New Mexico, however, cursive is no longer a part of the standard curriculum. And yet, the benefits of cursive for all students are undeniable.
I teach students with dyslexia and dysgraphia (more often known as specific learning disabilities in reading and writing.) The neurodivergent brain doesn’t always acknowledge the difference in letter formation: a student with dyslexia or dysgraphia might compensate by using capital letters P, Q, B, and D. Cursive, on the other hand, allows a constant flow to the letters. Those same troublesome letters in print look more distinct in cursive (write those same letters in cursive and compare the shape and the formation between your print and cursive letters. See?!). The good news is that many students in New Mexico who have dyslexia receive instruction in cursive. They learn cursive in small groups alongside a reading coach or an interventionist and thrive in handwriting and reading comprehension. Sierra, one of my former students, received intervention for her dyslexia but has been able to move from disjointed print letters to passing every spelling quiz she takes when writing in cursive. Sierra reads better than ever and spends less time worrying about what letter to use and more time working on her reading comprehension—one of her academic goals. The International Dyslexia Association agrees that cursive handwriting can improve these students’ learning experiences. We should make cursive instruction available to all students with dyslexia in New Mexico.
Yet, there are many students, just like my daughter, who don’t need intervention services; her handwriting is legible, but certainly not eloquent enough to write a letter. With the push for systematic, explicit phonics instruction that leads to better spelling, writing, and overall reading comprehension I have to wonder: why aren‘t we also teaching cursive handwriting to all our students? My daughter and students like her would benefit from cursive instruction by learning a script that improves their writing and allows all students to have an equitable writing experience.
According to a Université de Montréal study, cursive handwriting in the general education setting might improve word production, syntax, and memory since the letters are linked. Hence, the brain remembers the word as one unit instead of individual letters. Even publishing company Scholastic boasts of the improvement of reading and writing when using cursive. A John Hopkins study published in Science Magazine found that the brain changes when cursive is introduced. Almost immediately, fluency improves, and neural pathways light up. Yet, cursive for many of our students has been relegated to a bygone era, a nostalgic reminder of the past for their parents.
Utilizing fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and boosting memory and brain development, cursive just might be the magic key to help all students make letters to form letters, words, and sentences. If we can both help a child with dyslexia and dysgraphia, and otherwise improve motivation and engagement by teaching students cursive because (as some of my former students say) “it’s cool”, we should do it.
We didn’t leave our daughter in the dark about the Civil War Letter. I read the majority of it and then my husband translated the rest into print. Our daughter’s response left us silent: “That’s cool. How long ago was that? Why is it in a frame? When do I get to learn cursive in school?”
Andrea Kiesling is a special education teacher at Alvis Elementary School in Clayton, N.M. Mexico. She is a 2022-2023 Teach Plus New Mexico Policy Fellow.