Handwriting and Neuroscience

cursiveI had a conversation with a friend this past week about kids and handwriting. She was upset that her grandchild doesn't seem to be able to write or read cursive. She sees this as a big mistake. In fact, the dreaded Common Core standards call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, it is all about the keyboard. Even without those guidelines, handwriting has certainly been pushed out of the elementary curriculum.

I asked a few people I know who teach elementary school about teaching cursive. They said that though they spend less time on it than in the past, kids like to do it. They have been trying it n their own – practicing their signature is especially popular. Like keyboarding, they are doing it outside school anyway, so the earlier the school can address any “formal” training and correct bad habits, the better it seems to be. 

Some psychologists and neuroscientists have new evidence that suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development are deeper than suspected earlier.

Quick take: Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.

Were you taught cursive handwriting in your early days of school?  I was unfortunately labeled as “gifted” when I was in second grade and so I was put in an experimental combined second/third grade class. Since the third graders were already writing in cursive, my group was given a fast version of penmanship. My handwriting has suffered ever since. I did become good at printing letters and I took “mechanical drawing” (drafting) classes where we actually practiced precise block lettering. I even took a course in calligraphy in the hopes of improving my handwriting.

But cursive handwriting seems to be a rather obsolete skill, like using a slide rule. (I also learned how to use a slide rule in chemistry and physics class. Yes, I am old.)

What was the last significant document you wrote by hand?

scanNew research seems to indicate that beyond what we write how we write matters. If children had drawn a letter freehand, they showed increased activity when their brain was scanned in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write. In order to be able to read, you need to be able recognize each possible iteration of a letter no matter how we see it written - on a book's page, on a screen in different fonts or written by hand on a piece of paper. 

In one study comparing children who physically form letters with those who only watch others doing it, the result seems to be that only the actual effort of writing the letters engages the brain’s motor pathways.

It's not just about letter recognition. Young children (grades 2-5) studied showed that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns. Those patterns result in different end products. For example, composing by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.

The result that most intrigues me was from research on the older children. When they were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory, and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

I know that for myself and for others I have talked about this subject, we believe that the act of putting thoughts down on paper forces us to focus on what’s important. I still prefer to take notes at meeting and conferences by hand.

Do you remember those charts of how to make the letters that was in almost every elementary classroom? I can’t even remember how to make some letters in cursive – Z and Q are blanks. When did the decline of cursive begin? Some history - 

Our Colonial writers had a very elaborate cursive style. 

In the 1800s, the popular style was a loopy, “Spencerian” script. 

In the 1920s, educators thought that since children learn to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way.

In the 1940s, manuscript (print writing) was the standard taught in  kindergarten and cursive was taught in second or third grade. The standardized practical style came from the Palmer Guide to Business Writing from back in 1894. Business practice enters school.

Why has handwriting fallen out of favor? Ask 10 people and I bet at least nine will blame technology? Between computers and smartphones, there’s not much need to write. Hmmmm…

According to the Journal of Educational Psychology, only 9% of American high school students use an in-class computer more than once a week. Just looking at the students around me at the college, most of their note taking and in-class writing is handwriting. And most of their tests still are handwritten. No doubt, email has killed letter writing which was once a formal use of cursive. But in an age of machine-scored standardized tests, handwriting just doesn’t count much in the evaluation of students.


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