Why learn to write cursive?

When I was in elementary school, printing was difficult enough for me. Or, more accurately, being patient enough to neatly form each letter was difficult. I just wanted to get my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. When I started to learn cursive, it was an exciting and novel activity for the first day, but it quickly became tedious. Why would I want to sit and write the same letter over and over when I had so many stories and observations that were begging to be written instead? Because I thought cursive writing was a waste of time (and isn’t it usually more difficult to read too?), as soon as my teachers stopped caring, I stopped using it. This article in Psychology Today now has me wondering if that was such a great idea.

The article by William Klemm discusses the cognitive benefits of learning cursive. He writes that, during the process of learning cursive, “the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking.” When we write in cursive, we have to exercise fine motor control over our fingers and pay attention to how we’re forming letters, recruiting brain areas that aren’t used when we keyboard.

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Image: http://www.fanpop.com

A lot of the benefits of writing cursive also extend to printing: strokes must be located relative to each other, the sizes, form, and features of each letter must be remembered, and categorization skills are developed. However, cursive writing brings some additional benefits because “the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation.”

These observations about the benefits of cursive are really interesting in the context of enactivism – the idea that one’s mind is organized by his interactions with the environment. (To me, this is almost the same thing as embodied cognition, except that where embodied cognition emphasizes the body with which we act, enactivism emphasizes the actual acting.) The physical act of writing seems to play a facilitatory role in coming up with ideas. In a study of children from grades 2-6, Virginia Bernignger at the University of Washington found that they wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand than with a keyboard. While this could be taken as a sign that children are bad typists, the argument is that the ideas emerged via motor movements.

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Image: http://www.interestingtopics.net

The study of haptics examines the interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain functions. If researchers are right that the act of writing helps form representations of letters when children are learning to read and write, I wonder if our letter representations are somehow altered or degraded if we later elect to replace handwriting with typing?

Another sort of tangential connection is the suggestion I’ve heard by many educators to physically rewrite notes when trying to memorize them, as opposed to typing them. Somehow, the tedious act of forming the letters facilitates stronger memories of the materials. Aside from the fact that, if true, these are helpful hints for education, the apparent cognitive impacts of handwriting also speak to the inseparability of our bodies and our minds, even in seemingly mundane cases such as handwriting vs. typing.

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9 thoughts on “Why learn to write cursive?

  1. Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

    Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there’s even an iPad app to teach how: named. “Read Cursive,” of course.) So why not simply teach children to read cursive. — along with teaching other vital skills, including some handwriting style that’s actually typical of effective handwriters?

    Adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

    Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, adds brain cells, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    So far — in this article, in Dr. Klemm’s article, and in the on-line comments thereunder — whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things become evident as soon as readers examine the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim (of research support for cursive) provides no traceable source,

    or

    /2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is usually misrepresented by cursive’s defenders as a study “comparing print-writing with cursive”),

    or

    /3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

    What about signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

    All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which student produced it.

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

    SOURCES:

    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf
    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:

    A BRIEF HISTORY OF CURSIVE —

    TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING —

    HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —

    [AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

    1. Dear Kate,

      Thank you for copying and pasting that article. I agree that I am skeptical of the importance of cursive over handwriting in general, and definitely did not intend to sound like a cursive cheerleader in my post. I do suspect, however, that learning a new way of writing (which would be cursive, since children learn to print first), could be beneficial for fine motor development, simply because it is new and requires practice, not because cursive has any inherent magical properties. I also agree that the more important point is the impact that writing at all (over typing) has for our cognition – something we definitely don’t want to lose as we rely more and more on technology!

      1. Why WOULD a new way of writing “have to be cursive” (whose use is so rapidly diminishing)? Granted that children start with print-writing, why couldn’t the next step be a semi-joined, practical handwriting with print-like features, sichas is used in many of the English-soeaking (and other) countries that score high on international comparisons of academic achievement?
        Even in the USA, handwriting programs of this type are already available and deserve to be considered and examined. A couple of them are among the following resources that I recommend for simpler, better handwriting: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com,
        http://www.handwritingsuccess.com,
        http://www.briem.net,
        http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com,
        http://www.italic-handwriting.org,
        http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html

      2. Definitely wouldn’t HAVE to be cursive – that just tends to be our alternative to printing in the English language. A semi-joined hybrid, like you mentioned, seems like it would have the exact same benefits, and maybe even more, since it maintains some similarities with the printing style that students would already be familiar with.

      3. So we see eye to eye on this! One interesting thing, of course, is that the first-ever handwriting textbooks in our alphabet — back in the Renaissance era — actually DID teach what we, today, would regard as a “semi-joined print-like hybrid” (which WAS the usual cursive of the era — it wasn’t until a century or so later that the cursive we have today even started to be invented. Today, we call the Renaissance-era style “italic” because the books that taught it were first published in Italy.)

        In other words: semi-joined print-like writing is nothing new; it’s the oldest joined-writing style that’s still in use for our alphabet, which makes it far more traditional than the come-lately “traditional” cursive we had to learn instead.

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