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Lawmaker makes final bid for cursive writing requirement in Missouri schools

Desiree Pezley demonstrates cursive writing Feb. 8 at Hallsville Intermediate School. She shows students how to correctly form letters for words such as “grim,” “flat” and “cash” (Rilee Malloy/Missourian).
Desiree Pezley demonstrates cursive writing Feb. 8 at Hallsville Intermediate School. She shows students how to correctly form letters for words such as “grim,” “flat” and “cash” (Rilee Malloy/Missourian).

For six straight years, Democratic state Rep. Gretchen Bangert has filed a bill that would require cursive handwriting to be taught in Missouri public schools.

The bill has failed each time, never making it out of the House and only twice getting initial approval. Yet Bangert, of Florissant, isn’t letting the issue go.

In December, she pre-filed the bill for the seventh time, her final attempt before she leaves the House due to term limits, and earlier this month testified in a public hearing before the House Special Committee on Education Reform in a final bid to convince lawmakers to support the measure.

“Learning cursive is important because our primary source documents, many historical documents, notes and letters were written in cursive, including our Constitution,” Bangert told the committee.

Bangert’s one-page proposal would make it a requirement for public school districts and charter schools in Missouri to teach cursive writing by the end of fifth grade and ensure students pass a test demonstrating competency in both reading and writing cursive.

Teaching cursive in Missouri isn’t required by law. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sets instructional guidelines for local districts, known as the Missouri Learning Standards, but schools have ultimate control over curriculum and which material is being taught.

Twenty-three states instruct schools to teach cursive. The Missouri Learning Standards, approved in 2016 by the State Board of Education, highlight the ability to write legibly in cursive as a goal for second and third graders. However, this is merely an expectation, not a requirement.

But Bangert wants to make it a requirement.

A few years ago, Bangert said she gave an intern a handwritten note with a task she wanted him to complete. When she returned two weeks later to check if he completed it, the intern said he didn’t do it because he couldn’t read the note.

“I realized, my kids had cursive handwriting but then a lot of other kids had not had it,” Bangert said.

A study conducted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that cursive handwriting enhances learning by activating more of the brain. Another study showed children ages 3 to 5 enjoyed better letter recognition when they wrote them by hand as opposed to typing.

The same study also found that note taking by hand is superior to typing when measuring for learning outcome.

“I type 95 words a minute, I can type all day long from a dictaphone,” Bangert said. “But am I really remembering everything? If I have to bring it all together and summarize it and then write it at that point in time, that makes you slow down and really think.”

Kari Yeagy, director of communications for Hallsville School District, where cursive is being taught in third-grade classrooms, believes teaching cursive to students is important.

Before serving in her current role, Yeagy taught second and third grade at Hallsville schools for seven years. She said she packs her daughter’s lunch each school day and puts a note written in cursive in her lunchbox.

“I feel that it’s a skill that she needs to at least to be able to read cursive so that when she does receive mail from her grandparents, she is able to read it,” Yeagy said.

Yeagy added that she doesn’t want her students to feel disadvantaged because of an inability to read and write cursive.

“I think that if our ultimate goal is to raise educated, well-rounded students, then we need to make sure that they are capable learners,” Yeagy said. “And if that involves them being able to read cursive or read an analog clock or be able to code, you want to make sure that they’re at least exposed to everything.”

Springfield Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with more than 24,000 students, teaches cursive to elementary students. In an email, Teresa Bledsoe, the district’s director of communications, said cursive is being taught in the second, third, fourth and fifth grades.

“The expectation is that students will be able to write legibly in print and cursive,” Bledsoe said.

Similarly, Columbia Public Schools teach the “elements of cursive” in third grade, according to CPS spokesperson Michelle Baumstark.

Baumstark said CPS currently includes cursive instruction “because it’s a skill set students still need to be exposed to learning.” She said CPS will continue to monitor Bangert’s bill.

During the public hearing, no one testified in opposition to Bangert’s bill. No one testified in opposition last year either. But arguments against teaching cursive do exist.

Most frequently, opponents cite increasing reliance on digital technology as a reason to put less focus on cursive, advocating for typing as a better, more efficient way of taking notes.

Rep. Doug Mann, a Columbia Democrat, supports Bangert’s bill, but said he is sympathetic to the fact that classrooms are constrained by limited instruction time, which may become hampered by teaching cursive.

“Putting more things on the teachers to do can be burdensome,” Mann said.

Mann speaks from experience. Before being elected to represent District 50 in the House, Mann taught history and civics to high school students.

“There were plenty of things that I was asked to do as a teacher that got in the way of instructional time and really doing the things that I signed up to be a teacher to do,” he said.

Though he admitted that teaching cursive isn’t the first thing on his mind when it comes to changes in education, Mann, who sits on the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, said teaching cursive in classrooms is “probably a good idea.”

“Being able to read those primary sources, being able to operate in a world where you are likely to run into cursive at some point in your life is beneficial,” Mann said.

Teaching cursive used to be a frequent part of public education — before it was pushed aside when the Common Core State Standards were rolled out and adopted by nearly all 50 states and the District of Columbia. But as the number of adopting states grew, focus shifted from cursive to keyboarding.

The Common Core standards are a set of guidelines released in 2010 meant to establish instructional cohesion in English language arts and math among K-12 students regardless of where they live.

Missouri adopted the standards but replaced them in 2016 with the Missouri Learning Standards. Several other states have either dropped or replaced the Common Core standards, including Florida, Tennessee and Arizona.

If Bangert’s proposal gets across the finish line, it won’t have any fiscal impact on the education department, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Bangert said she is hopeful the bill will pass.

“I have an early start like I did last year,” Bangert said, “so I’m feeling positive about it and I’m just going to talk to everybody that I can.”

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.