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Technology may script an end to the art of cursive writing

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By Amy Perrette, Producer, NBC News 

As a new school year begins, many children will be returning to classrooms filled with brand new computers, tablets and other tools essential to prep students for life in a plugged-in world. But as schools go high-tech, the move may spell the end for cursive writing. 

The Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks for American public schools, do not require students to learn cursive. Only 11 of the 50 states have amended their education requirements to mandate cursive be included in the curriculum. As a result, states and districts nationwide are grappling with whether to teach the skill at all. 

Principal Mary Toomey, however, requires that all her third and fourth graders at South Lawrence East Elementary in Lawrence, Mass., learn cursive.

Toomey believes cursive helps level the playing field for the students in her school, which has a demographic of high poverty.

“For many of the students, we know that the technology is just not available in the home,” Toomey said. “Ensuring that our kids have a very legible way to communicate as they move throughout school and hopefully into the workforce is going to be important to them.” 

Educational standards expert Morgan Polikoff disagrees that cursive should be a requirement.

 “The fact is that cursive isn't used in the vast majority of professions or day-to-day activities for the vast majority of people,” he said, “so it's hard for me to see how learning cursive conveys any sort of advantage." 

Polikoff notes that none of his students at University of Southern California take notes with a pen and paper, and that he rarely writes by hand himself.

"In my day-to-day life, I type 98 percent of the things I write,” he said. 

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Jan Olsen, founder of Handwriting Without Tears, has been teaching cursive instruction to educators for decades. She maintains cursive is still a relevant skill - and points out that it is more efficient than print.

“The mechanics of cursive actually make it faster because you keep going,” Olsen said. “It's not a stop and start. Think of yourself in traffic: if you're stopping and starting, and stopping and starting, you don't do as well as if you can just move gradually down the road.” 

Olsen, however, advocates a more pared-down version of cursive. She says that a big part of why old-fashioned cursive can be hard to read is the slant, which she says is a legacy from when writers actually used quill pens.

“Those quill pens had a nib that, if you did an upstroke, the nib would fall out and the ink would splatter,” Olsen said. To get around the problem, 19th century penmen invented the slant that became fashionable in cursive writing.

Modern pens can easily accomplish an upstroke without posing a risk to one’s shirtfront, so Olsen teaches a vertical style of cursive.

“The cursive we're talking about for the 21st century is different from the cursive from the 20th, 19th, and even further back,” Olsen said. But the continuity between old and new cursive is exactly what captivates master penman Michael Sull.

"There are so many children today who can't even read cursive writing, let alone write it,” he said. “They'll never be able to read anything that was written in the 19th century. They won't be able to read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or anything written during the Civil War. They're missing an entire portion of our country's history.” 

At the offices of BuzzFeed, a company that tracks viral content on the Web, the young staff seems to hardly use cursive.

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“It’s kind of this strange subset that doesn’t exist in real life,” said 25-year-old Deputy Editor Charlie Warzel, who doesn’t think he has ever received a thank-you card written by hand in cursive.

BuzzFeed sports editor Ben Mathis-Lilley can only think of one instance when one might use cursive: “I guess when you are signing a check?” 

But at South Lawrence East, Toomey credits the penmanship program with her students’ achievement -- her school was one of only two in the district to be named for the state commendation award in 2010 and 2011. And last year the school was the only school in the district to earn state level-one status.

"One of the ways that we have differentiated ourselves with the district is the adoption of a penmanship program. It's a part of the curriculum that most schools have gotten away from." 

South Lawrence East third-grader Emilio Cardone thinks print is easier than cursive, but is proud to be learning the connected writing.

“There’s going to be a special day that I’m going to use cursive,” he said. 

Maybe it isn’t time to sign off on cursive just yet.