by Rocky Lewis
Cursive writing: Outdated mode of communication, or the latest victim of standardized testing? Advocates of cutting cursive from the curriculum say it’s time-consuming to teach and no longer useful in a keyboard world. Advocates of keeping cursive in the classroom, like Waldorf Educators, say it is more than a means to a writing ends — it’s a brain builder, a historical research tool, and a note-taking skill set.
In defense of the idea that handwriting is outdated, a 2012 survey of handwriting teachers, conducted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks, found that only 37% of the handwriting teachers themselves wrote in cursive, although 55% had created a hybrid method of writing. (1)
Steve Graham, Education Professor at Arizona State University says arguments for teaching handwriting are “based in nostalgia and not research.” But a handful of states disagree and have decided to make it mandatory again, including California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. (2)(3)
Their reason? A growing body of research in the neurosciences showing that writing in by hand activates brain areas involved in language and working memory.
Indiana University –
Children were asked to interact with an fMRI. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction including print (manuscript) and cursive. Writing by hand, in either print or cursive, resulted in “recruitment of letter speciﬁc neural processing regions seen in the literate adult.” And surprisingly, these results happened after a very short period of writing instruction. (4)
Researcher and Indiana University neuroscientist, Karin Harman James, says,
“These kinds of findings point to there being something really important about printing and potentially also about cursive.” (5)
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience –
A French study from 2008, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, evaluated “the ability of adults to discriminate new characters from their mirror images after being taught how to produce the characters either by traditional pen-and-paper writing or with a computer keyboard.” The researchers found that those who wrote by hand could recognize the mirrored characters for several weeks, unlike the adults who used a keyboard. (6) Handwriting advocates say this suggests a connection between writing, memory, and visual learning.
University of Washington –
Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, has spent her 30-year career studying cognitive neuroscience, specifically related to learning reading, writing, and math in children with and without disabilities. (7)
She was part of a study published in The Journal of Educational Psychology that found elementary students could not only write more quickly using cursive vs. the keyboard, but also wrote more complete sentences. (8)
Another study Berninger was involved with shows handwriting or “sequential finger movements” activate brain regions involved in thinking, language, and working memory, which are not comparable to brain activity recorded when typing. (9)
And in her article Strengthening the Mind’s Eye, A Case for Continued Handwriting Instruction in the 21st Century, published by The National Association of Elementary School Principals, she cites several additional studies that connect learning how to write by hand as a “necessary motor exercise … [to] develop eye-hand coordination motor skills (Saperstein Associates 2012; James and Gauthier 2006; James 2012; Berninger 2012).” (10)
Teachers College –
Stephen Peverly, Professor of Psychology and Education and Chair of the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teachers College, has studied transcription speed (how fast students can write or type) and its effect on comprehension.
He says, “For kids in the first few years of school, how fast they write is one of the best predictors of the quality of essays they write in school.”
As earlier studies have noted, handwriting is faster for young children. But what if they could learn to type fast? Peverly plans to address this question in his next study — measuring results of speed and comprehension in note taking via handwriting vs. computer.
He says. “Good note-taking isn’t simply about trying to take down all the information. It’s also a filtering process, a way of zeroing in on what’s most important.” (11)
It would seem the handwriting is on the wall, so to speak. More and more research is drawing a connection between writing by hand and better learning. One can conclude that jumping too quickly to keyboarding can hinder deeper connections formed in the brain. However, the differentiation between the benefits of teaching manuscript (print) versus cursive, has not yet been solidly established by the current research.