House Bill 146: Back to Basics

Jun 14, 2013

We explore House Bill 146, known as the “Back to Basics” bill, which would make learning cursive writing and the memorization of multiplication tables a requirement in North Carolina public schools.

House Bill 146, known as “Back to Basics” would require North Carolina public schools to teach cursive writing and the memorization of multiplication tables.  Some believe this controversial legislation would rush the developmental processes of children.  Others say the bill would improve student performance.  The legislation has worked its way through the House and Senate Chambers and is now awaiting a signature by Gov. Pat McCrory before it becomes law.  Public Information Officer Vanessa Jeeter with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction says some of the changes that the Back to Basics bill proposes aren’t new.

“The multiplication table memorization, learning those multiplication facts is something that’s been in our standard course of study and continues to be in our common core state standards.”

But as far as cursive writing, Jeeter says the common core state standards introduced last Fall didn’t include a specific recommendation for educators to teach cursive.  Instead, it’s up to teachers to decide if cursive should be a part of the classroom curriculum.    

“I remember and maybe you do to where that’s all you did for third grade. You did a lot of cursive handwriting.  By the time my children made it thru elementary school, it really was not emphasized in the same way.”

“And why is that?”

“I think there is just a lot of other skills that people see as important and choices have to be made about where you spend time.”

The introduction to cursive writing is usually in the third grade.  But some schools will start to teach cursive at the end of the second grade year.

“Historically, it's been taught around third grade but then students aren’t’ required to use it after that.  So they don’t really get a chance to master the skill.”

The “Back To Basics” bill would require students to create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade. In an age of digital learning, computers, and touch screen textbooks, writing by hand could almost be considered obsolete. However, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at East Carolina University Dr. Denise Donica says technology shouldn’t replace tradition.

 “Even as calculators were developed and we can do those computations without having to know the actual skill behind the equation or whatever it is we’re computing, it is still an important skill to teach.  And I feel the same with handwriting. Even though we have the technology that can produce it for us, without having to learn the basics.  We would never dream of taking math out of the schools because we have technology that does it for us.” 

Whether it’s cursive or print, Dr. Donica says handwriting in general is an important skill that can be cognitively beneficial to young children.  

“There’s been a lot of research to show the actual importance of the actual motor skill of hand writing and how that links to the connections in the brain.”

A study at Indiana University found that writing by hand actually engages the brain in learning.  Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reported that when students develop their handwriting, it increases their brain activity and improves fine motor skills.

“And I think cursive specifically is important because there are some children that really struggle with printing skills and I’ve worked with children specifically who were not efficient communicators with printing, but were successful with cursive. And it gave them a voice.”

While studies show handwriting – or in this case, cursive writing - can actually be beneficial to a child’s development, others argue it's a waste of valuable time in the classroom.

“The ability to write in cursive is not necessarily a requirement for learning to read and write.”

Retired teacher Evelyn Paul taught special education for 20 years.  She believes cursive writing is a dying art.

“and to make all children learn to write in cursive aside from the fact that the only thing you use it for is to sign your name I think it’s cruel and I think it’s unrealistic and the people that are proposing that, none of them have any background in teaching, or learning theory or learning disabilities.” 

House Bill 146 was presented to the Governor for approval on Tuesday.  If the bill is signed, North Carolina will join Utah, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Georgia, Massachusetts and California in passing cursive handwriting legislation.  The new requirements would take effect at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.  Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.