The Writing's On the Wall (Just Too Few Can Read It)

The instructions from the teachers seemed so simple — “Copy the notes from the board and study them for the test.” Yet, test time would come and my students would have no notes from which to study. The students would not only fail the tests, they would lose the extra points that some teachers give if students “turn in notes for extra credit.”

“Why don’t you at least copy the notes and get credit for that much?” I would ask in great frustration. The responses varied from shoulder shrugs to a mumbled, “I don’t know.” Not one student spoke up to explain that they weren’t refusing to follow instructions; that they just could neither read nor write cursive handwriting!

I had assumed that they would know enough cursive to at least copy notes from a blackboard, but I was so wrong. The students finally began ‘fessing up’ when I began using The Spalding Reading Method. With The Writing Road to Reading, students are required to 1) write the dictated words into their notebooks, 2) sound out the words as the teacher writes them on the board, 3) compare their words to the teacher’s for accuracy. Only then did students begin admitting, “I can’t read cursive.”

I thought that elementary schools made sure that students learned the processes for writing and reading in cursive, and that staff then expected students to use cursive written forms, as a matter of course. I decided that my special education students, other than a few girls who prided themselves on flowery handwriting, had just missed the instruction in cursive, as they had missed the instruction in reading. Then I began teaching reading at the county jail…

Since I was teaching adults, I used cursive as I wrote on the board, but the prisoners pointed out that they didn’t know how to read cursive…either! So these fellows may have missed as much schooling as my students were missing, simply from being unable to read the handwriting of other human beings. Should we be surprised, then, that they end up in jail, rather than in productive occupations that depend on skilled, educated employees? I began to discuss my concerns and observations with teachers of ‘regular’ students. I learned that many of the ‘normal’ kids also complain if teachers use handwriting on boards or tests or notes, because many of those students cannot read cursive…either!

So, yet another underlying cause for the massive failure of government schooling comes to light. The percentage of Americans, over the age of eight, who cannot read handwriting, even if they are able to read print, must raise illiteracy rates to even higher levels. The ability to handle cursive penmanship, for both expressive and receptive needs, must be defective in more individuals, of more ages, than one might ever have guessed. It has been obvious that handwriting skills have been deteriorating over the last fifty years, but many of us failed to consider the fact that, deterioration in the quality of production then causes many poor writers to have receptive difficulties as they attempt to read cursive penmanship.

It is very frustrating to teach students who cannot read print above basic levels; cannot read cursive handwriting; have never had their minds trained to focus on details and recall. One only needs to observe high school teachers trying to teach content subjects to such students — so many of whom: lack basic foundations in elementary-level skills; have spent too much time watching television; have had their minds and senses drugged with too many hours of video game usage — to understand why high school content becomes more dumbed down with each passing year. If the expectations at the higher grades are not continually lowered, ever-dwindling numbers of students view the assignments as ‘do-able.’ Fewer homework assignments are completed and turned in, so eventually teachers assign fewer and easier pieces of homework.

Special education students represent a small part of the American students who arrive at middle schools lacking the skills and motivation for learning. Graduation standards will continue to be unmet as long as elementary schools fail to make sure that students learn to read at or above grade level; to write with a clear hand; to read the handwriting of others; to have a solid, working knowledge of math concepts and functions; — in other words, to be ready for the increased academic demands necessary for becoming an educated, knowledgeable person prior to graduation from high school.

Elementary schools must stop denying the problems; must discard the fads; must get teachers trained in how to REALLY teach reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic; must get back to teaching basics thoroughly and effectively. As long as elementary schools pass unskilled, uneducated, unprepared students on to upper grades, our middle and high schools will be trapped into dumbing down assignments and expectations. As is, the ‘graduates’ from our public elementary schools cannot handle anything more difficult, and have little or no motivation to work harder to overcome the deficiencies left by their elementary instruction.

I now begin each new school year by teaching cursive handwriting, and then I use and expect cursive for every assignment. The students grumble and moan, but I hold firm and they finally — years after elementary teachers failed to hold them accountable for such important skills — learn to read and write, not only print, but also handwritten notes, letters, and instructions.

One of my proudest moments came after having ‘Mary’ for about three years. She had come to me as a ninth grader with a first-grade reading level and near-illegible printing. Once her basic reading and writing skills were in place, I challenged her to read more by offering to buy her the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series, book-by-book, as she read each one and gave me an oral report. She earned all eight books. One day she noticed a new book on my desk and asked to look at it. It was a beautiful book about Mrs. Wilder and contained photographs of many letters written by Mrs. Wilder, her friends and her family. I continued on with my tasks, listening as ‘Mary’ sat beside me, reading aloud from the book. Suddenly it occurred to me that she was reading the personal letters, not the print information. Handwritten letters! Personal letters written in the era of Palmer and Spencerian penmanship! This student, who others had considered un-teachable, proved that she had become, not only a reader of print, but also a reader who possessed skills flexible enough to enable her to read penmanship styles from a hundred and more years in the past. Chances to observe that kind of closure, as a result of patient teaching, are indeed rare and memorable.

This is the level and breadth of literacy that all elementary schools should teach toward, and develop in, children. The debates over the dumbing down of academic work at the middle and high school levels can rage on, but until elementary schools accept their responsibilities to make sure that all students, upon completion of those years, possess solid basic skills; the foundation upon which federal education stands will continue to be shaky, built as it is upon shifting sand. (“Crooked House — Crumbling Foundation”) It would be well for those who dream of reforming government schooling, to begin by repairing the wall with the greatest breach. That wall is the one supporting Elementary Education.