When I heard that some grade schools no longer teach cursive handwriting, I felt like an official member of the dinosaur-parent club. Are we really so high-tech that my 7-year-old will grow up in a world without signatures, unable to decipher the notes in script that I wrote in her baby book?
I asked my friend September Gerety, a fourth-grade teacher at Putnam Elementary, in Fort Collins, Colorado, what she thinks about this trend. Her answer surprised me: "The time kids have in class is so limited that we need to focus on the skills that are most applicable and practical."
She made a compelling point. As our world becomes increasingly digital, it's clear that many of the building blocks of my own elementary education may not be a factor in my daughter's future. But how do schools decide what is still worth teaching and what isn't? That's a tricky question. Although 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that cover reading, writing, and arithmetic, there remains a great deal of variability in how districts, schools, and individual teachers choose to employ them. Moreover, some old-fashioned lessons still have enduring value—even if their use and methods have changed.
Old school: Cursive
New skill: Keyboarding
According to the CCSS curriculum, students should learn to print by first grade and start writing on a computer keyboard by third grade. Cursive isn't even mentioned. Many educators believe there's little point in spending time on something that's seldom required in the real world anymore. However, forming letters by hand (either print or cursive) engages the brain: Elementary-school students wrote longer essays and more complete sentences when they used a pen rather than a keyboard, according to a study led by Virginia Berninger, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, in Seattle. There's no conclusive research to prove that cursive is better than printing in promoting these cognitive benefits (or even that using script is faster for taking notes), but some kids who struggle with printing seem to find cursive easier. "I think we should introduce them to both forms of writing and then let them choose," says Dr. Berninger. Whatever your child's preferred writing technique, the key is that she learns to produce the letters automatically so she can concentrate on what she's writing instead of how.
There's no need for students to duplicate the elegant penmanship of a bygone era. It's probably enough for your child to be able to decipher birthday cards from Aunt Emma and to sign her name (printing is legal on documents but is more susceptible to forgery). If your school skips cursive, try the app ABC Joined Up (iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch; $3), which lets your child learn by tracing letters with a finger or a stylus.
While you're at it, keep an eye on her typing. Formal keyboarding instruction generally begins in third or fourth grade (by which time children have better dexterity), but that may be too late. "Young kids can develop bad typing habits that are difficult to break," says Harriet Rogers, Ed.D., who researches keyboarding instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She advocates teaching preschoolers preliminary skills, such as using two hands, placing fingers on the "home row" (left hand on A, S, D, F and right hand on J, K, L, ;), and using one thumb for the space bar. Once your child starts typing words, whether to search for websites, write e-mails, or complete school assignments, she should use "assigned" fingers via the touch method. She can practice with a program such as Typing Instructor for Kids Platinum (ages 7+, $11; amazon.com).
Old school: Library research
New skill: Online fact-finding
When your child is old enough to complain about doing independent research for a report, regale him with tales from your childhood: "My mom drove me five miles through sleet and snow to use the Dewey decimal system at the library." Surely that's a memory that makes us grateful for Google.
Still, finding reliable information for a school project used to be relatively straightforward: A child could simply look up printed books and reference materials, all of which met an implied standard of reliability. Today anyone can start a website, post a blog, or self-publish a book with no oversight. For students, research has become less about finding information (although kids still need to know how to enter an effective search term) and more about evaluating the results, whether they're from Wikipedia, articles, podcasts, or YouTube. Kids must discern whether what they find is accurate and up-to-date and if the source is credible.
"From an early age, you can introduce the idea that there are many sides to almost every story but that not all of them are true or impartial," says Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Ph.D., professor of information and library science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, check out a classic version of The Three Little Pigs, then get the wolf's perspective from The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, as told to author Jon Scieszka. Also visit the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website (zapatopi.net/treeoctopus) together. It's packed with details and photos of this fictitious creature. Was your child fooled?
Of course, once kids know where and how to look, they can find more information online than any library could ever house. One of the best Web sources is—surprise—your public library. Your child can use his card to log in (either on-site or via a home computer) to free databases, many of them written with kids in mind.
Old school: Analog
New skill: Digital
While most first-graders are taught to tell time both ways in class, those days are likely numbered. Easy-to-read digital clocks are everywhere—on cell phones, cable boxes, computers, microwaves—while the kind with ticking hands increasingly plays a role that's decorative rather than functional.
However, traditional timepieces do have one distinct advantage: The numbered face gives kids a more visual representation of time in seconds, minutes, and hours. "A clock or watch that shows the movement of the three hands can be a valuable tool," says Kathryn Chval, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs in the college of education at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. "Kids get a sense of how quick a second is and how long a minute seems."
It doesn't take a lot of class time for kids to crack the code of those glowing LED numerals. As soon as they learn how to read numbers, they simply need to remember that the ones to the left of the colon represent hours while those to the right are the minutes.
But the analog concept—the distance between two consecutive numbers on a clock face is five minutes (for the long hand) and one hour (for the short hand)—is more challenging to grasp. To help your child pick it up, try using the Jungle Time app (for iPhone and iPod touch, $1, and iPad; $3). Or you might decide it's not worth the effort, since analog may go the way of the sundial. Your call. Either way, be sure to introduce some activities that demonstrate the passage of time. You can challenge your child to track how long she spends doing different activities (such as watching TV, playing, and doing homework) during a typical day. And let her experiment with a variety of timekeepers, such as an hourglass, a stopwatch, and a kitchen timer.
Are You Better at Math than a Third-Grader?
Grab a pencil and paper to complete this problem: 932-356=____. Be sure to show your work!
Done? We know you got the right answer (576), but you probably worked the problem from right to left, "borrowing" from the adjacent column as needed. Today's grade-schoolers learn different methods for subtraction, including one that works the opposite way (from the hundreds to the tens to the ones).
Proponents of this "reform math" say it gives kids a better grasp of the underlying concept. Like it or not, the changes can make a parent feel downright ignorant. "It's one thing if you can't help your high-school kid with his homework, but it's quite another when you can't help your third-grader," says Dr. Kathryn Chval.
When your child is stumped, try some prompts to get him going ("What have you come up with so far?"). You might also skim through his math book to see how it's taught. If you can't figure out the new method, let his teacher know. She won't think any less of you—chances are she was once a borrower too.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.