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Should Schools Still Teach Cursive Writing?

Part II

Do children in a keyboard world need to learn old-fashioned handwriting? There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to—learning to write.

Beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive. Putting pencil to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets. In fact, learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.

Researchers have looked at the connection between oral and written language to what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine. Evidence from these studies suggests that handwriting—forming letters—engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.

Researchers have noticed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement. Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read. Children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

Can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In one study those who had good early fine-motor writing skills in pre-kindergarten did better later on in school. We need more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong. We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words. You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggests to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print showed that their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle. After these children were taught to print, patterns of brain activation in response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language—even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. A recent study suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing. (The question of laptops in class might be more about students’ attention wandering than to affecting handwriting.) Still, studies on note taking have suggested that students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand.

Research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing. Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type.

We should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways. Research shows how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition. Writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.

At one time people took great pains to write a letter utilizing their best penmanship. In fact, a case could be made that some of the finer examples of cursive writing are actually a form of art. We need to teach cursive to school children to preserve this history. E-mail messages are routinely deleted and not saved for posterity. Letters written in cursive tend to be saved and cherished. And let’s be honest, receiving a letter written in cursive is much more meaningful than one that is computer-generated.

Cursive writing is a long-held cultural tradition in this country and should continue to be taught. My teachers wrote homework assignments on the board in cursive. Some of today’s students might not be able to read them. There are students not able to read, or write their signature, in cursive writing. It is a grave disservice to say that we’ve educated children and taken away this form of instruction.

A number of states have considered—or are still considering—bills to mandate cursive writing instruction, to defy the oft-heralded “death of handwriting” wrought by the almighty keyboard. But proponents say they aren’t just nostalgic Luddites. American institutions still require signatures for things! One must both sign and print one’s name to receive a registered letter at the post office, as well signing one’s name to support a candidate for public office. More generally, one’s signature is a tool that can provide security; experts have said that printed letters are easier to forge.

Research suggests that printing letters and writing in cursive activate different parts of the brain. Learning cursive is good for children’s fine motor skills, and writing in longhand generally helps students retain more information and generate more ideas. Studies have also shown that kids who learn cursive rather than simply manuscript writing score better on reading and spelling tests, perhaps because the linked-up cursive forces writers to think of words as wholes instead of parts.

What can compare to the thrill of reading the Emancipation Proclamation or the Bill of Rights in their original forms—and what a travesty it is to raise Americans who would look at those documents as if they were written in hieroglyphics. “So that students are able to read our most valued historical documents in their original form,” reads a New Jersey proposal; this proposed bill requires that cursive be included in the public school curriculum.

As reported recently in the New York Times, some people suffer brain injuries that damage their ability to write and understand print—while their ability to comprehend cursive remains. Researchers have also suggested that cursive can serve as a teaching aid for children with learning impairments like dyslexia.

Of course, there are at least as many arguments to recommend typing, central as it is to success and communication in our daily lives. But the legislation that keeps on coming is proof that there’s still plenty of will to keep kids in the cursive loop.

Those who argue that the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation received support a few years ago from the College Board. They found that students who wrote in cursive for the essay portion of the SAT scored slightly higher than those who printed, which experts believe is because the speed and efficiency of writing in cursive allowed the students to focus on the content of their essays.

Some argue that cursive is no longer relevant because it isn’t included in the Common Core State Standards. But these standards only include those skills that are testable and measurable in the classroom; they don’t address basic foundation skills, like handwriting or even spelling. That said, the Common Core emphasizes the importance of expository writing to demonstrate understanding of key concepts, and fast, legible handwriting is the technology universally available to students to facilitate content development. Cursive, therefore, is vital to helping students master the standards of written expression and critical thinking, life skills that go well beyond the classroom.

Children in day schools first learn to print Hebrew in block letters then switch to cursive since no one writes in block letters except a sofer. We need to examine the research published in Israel, but I imagine the same principles apply.

Even though handwriting transcription fluency may be considered a low-level skill, it appears to be nonetheless consistently related to an accurate predictor of the amount and quality of the texts students produce—of students’ creativity of thought, organization, coherence of ideas, comprehensiveness of topical coverage and clarity of expression. The takeaway message is clear: Handwriting needs to be kept in the elementary language-arts curriculum.

See:

Virginia Berninger, “Relationships of Attention and Executive Functions to Oral Language, Reading, and Writing Skills and Systems in Middle Childhood and Early Adolescence,” Journal of Learning Disabilities. January, 2016.

Laura Dinehart, “Handwriting in Early Childhood Education: Current Research and Future Implications,” The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, March 2015 vol. 15 no. 1, pp. 97-118.

George H. Early, et al., “Cursive Handwriting, Reading, and Spelling Achievement,” Academic Therapy, Vol 12(1), 1976, pp. 67-74.

Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science, April 23, 2014.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene remembers drills and exercises in Palmer penmanship and in typing class.

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