My son can’t sign his name. At least he couldn’t, until a few days ago.
I’d known that Jacob had only received about three weeks of cursive writing instruction in third grade, and that he really hadn’t used it since. Today, at the age of 13, any of his schoolwork that is hand-written is done in print, but most school work is done on a computer. I never liked the fact that he wasn’t using cursive writing, but didn’t give it a lot of thought. That is, until I learned he couldn’t sign his name.
Thoughts flashed through my mind of a time when people who weren’t educated had to sign their name with an “X.” And while my son could print his name, it was unacceptable to me that he couldn’t sign his name. How would he sign a check or a document when the time came?
I had already arranged for Jacob to have some general tutoring this summer to brush up on some skills. Mrs. Sherry Flournoy, a retired teacher of 54 years and wife of one of my patients, was kind enough to offer to tutor him. So I asked her if she could also tutor Jacob in cursive writing, to which she replied, “Absolutely. And don’t let him practice in the workbook you bought. I have a technique, and he’ll be doing it in an hour!” And indeed he was!
That first morning of tutoring, I overheard Sherry say, “You know, writing is great for your memory. You remember 90 percent of what you write, but not of what you type.”
That’s when it hit me; writing isn’t just about putting words on paper. There are other benefits to it as well—important benefits—that are being lost. I set out to discover what some of those benefits are.
My research began with Mrs. Flournoy. She’s the type of teacher you always loved to have in school. She teaches so that you actually enjoy learning—and even remember what you learn and know how to apply it. She makes what she’s teaching relevant to kids’ lives, incorporating life lessons along the way. She was meant to teach.
“I began teaching in 1964. I love teaching! I know people who couldn’t wait to retire. When I retired, I cried,” she said.
She lights up when she talks about teaching. But Sherry has seen many changes in the educational system over the years, and believes many of them may not be for the better.
“I know they’ve mostly done away with cursive writing in schools today, and I think it’s a shame. With Common Core standards, a lot of things changed.”
In 2013, Common Core standards made cursive writing optional for schools. Instead, students are now required to learn typing and printing. Gone are the up and down strokes of “joined-up” writing.
As Common Core was being mandated, an article in The Los Angeles Times promoted the loss of cursive writing as a good thing: “States and schools shouldn’t cling to cursive based on the romantic idea that it’s a tradition, an art form or a basic skill whose disappearance would be a cultural tragedy. Of course, everyone needs to be able to write without computers, but longhand printing generally works fine.”
But many experts disagree.
Beth Carr, a literacy interventionist in Texas, advocates for children learning cursive writing.
“They remember words better. And can spell better when they’re writing that flow,” Carr said in an interview with Texas-based KTRE. “You know the pencil’s not starting and stopping and picking up. It’s a constant flow of text. And it’s very similar, if you think about it, with reading. We’re blending sounds, so when you’re writing and connecting those letters and blend, it just helps that brain flow.”
Contrary to what some believe, it’s very easy to teach cursive handwriting. Sherry was even asked to instruct other teachers in cursive.
She said, “In the ‘60s teachers were coming out of college and they didn’t know how to connect their cursive letters legibly. I used the same technique to teach them that I used with my kids.”
Sherry developed her own technique for teaching cursive, and still gets calls today from former students asking her to help them teach cursive to their own children or grandkids.
“I use three shapes: curves, humps, and around. You also have to know where to start the letters, so they can be connected legibly. If you know these basics, you’ll be writing cursive in no time,” she explained.
There is an ease to learning cursive. Printing is more difficult due to the frequent stop-and-start motion when forming letters. And letters are easily confused in print, for example with the letters “b” and “d,” something my own son struggled with.
“It’s so easy to learn cursive; but then it has to be reinforced. Once cursive comes naturally, it’s so fast, much faster than printing; you don’t even have to think about it,” Sherry said.
Before the 1940s all American children were taught cursive in the first grade. Then, in a move to modernize things, children started learning to print before they learned cursive. Today, in another move to modernize, we are doing away with cursive altogether.
Mrs. Flournoy recalled, “I was never taught how to print, I was taught cursive from the beginning.”
A Link to History
Sadly, many children today are cursively illiterate in their own language. Some may argue that kids don’t need to know how to read the U.S. Constitution or The Declaration of Independence in its original cursive form. But how would kids even know if such important documents had truly been transcribed into print correctly?
Sherry pointed out that this is why the clergy had to study Greek and Hebrew: “They needed to know what the original words were and what those words meant, to determine if they had been translated correctly into English.” This assured that what they were studying, and then teaching, was true and accurate to its original form.
“I used to ask my students how they were going to read the love letters their parents wrote to each other, to which I always got an ‘ewww,’” she laughed. “But there is a real loss of connection, not only to other people, but also to the past, with the loss of cursive.”
Effect on Neurological Development
The International Dyslexia Association views learning cursive early as a positive thing, stating, “It has been argued (by some who should know better) that learning to write using cursive makes it more difficult for beginning readers. This is simply not the case. Reading and writing, although both tasks involve written language processes, engage different circuits within the brain.”
In an article on NaturalSociety.com, Andrea Gordon discusses the impact cursive writing has on neurological development and cites a study by Dr. Jason Barton. His research shows that the left brain decides the meaning of written language, while the right brain helps us identify the writer through their style of writing, similar to how it helps us recognize faces. He says that with written language, the right brain “activates a memory trace … and fans out, setting off other sensory memories.”
Dr. David Sortino cites studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University who showed that the brain undergoes beneficial changes when using cursive. Sortino says, “They also demonstrated that these changes resulted in an almost immediate improvement in fluency, which led to later development of neural pathways. As a result of practicing these handwriting motor skills, the researchers found that acquired knowledge becomes more stable.”
What we learn becomes more ingrained when we write, especially in cursive.
Benefits Similar to Learning Music
In an article on Psychology Today, William Klemm, author of a number of books on the science of the brain, makes a strong case for schools teaching cursive writing. He discusses research in the field of “haptics,” which involves the interaction of the brain, hand movements, and touch.
“Cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual, and tactile information, and fine motor dexterity,” he says.
Cursive writing has a similar effect on brain development as does learning a musical instrument, Klemm says. “Not everybody can afford music lessons, but everybody has access to pencil and paper. Not everybody can afford a computer for their kids—maybe such kids are not as deprived as we would think.”
In addition, cursive helps children learn to spell correctly, since hand movements help create muscle memory. The hand acquires knowledge of spelling patterns through movements that are used repeatedly in spelling. This is the same phenomenon that occurs when pianists learn patterns of hand movements through continued repetition.
Klemm has concerns about the way children are being educated today: “School systems, driven by ill-informed ideologues and federal mandate, are becoming obsessed with testing knowledge at the expense of training kids to develop better capacity for acquiring knowledge.”
A Better Understanding
Cindy May, a professor of psychology at the College of Charleston, takes a closer look at a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer. The study found that students who wrote in longhand not only remembered more of what they learned, but also had a better understanding of the material.
“Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information,” May says. This provides a cognitive benefit known as “desirable difficulty.”
“Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention,” May says.
With typing, by contrast, a student can easily produce a nearly word-for-word transcript, but does so at the expense of processing and remembering what they’re typing. “Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information,” May says.
Sherry has also found this to be true. “When the kids type, if you come back and ask them a few minutes later what they typed earlier, they can’t tell you. When you write, you can’t get it all down, so you have to focus on getting down the key facts, and then come back and fill it in later. You’re more focused and process more of what you write.”
May sees many benefits to longhand writing, important benefits that impact how a person thinks and reasons. “If we want students to synthesize material, draw inferences, see new connections, evaluate evidence, and apply concepts in novel situations, we need to encourage the deep, effortful cognitive processes that underlie these abilities. When it comes to taking notes, students need fewer gigs, more brain power.”
Some advocates tout more than just the cognitive benefits of cursive writing. The beauty, creativity and personal connection cursive affords are also meaningful.
“It’s not just a question of writing a letter: it also involves drawing, acquiring a sense of harmony and balance, with rounded forms,” says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in a Guardian article. “There is an element of dancing when we write, a melody in the message, which adds emotion to the text. After all, that’s why emoticons were invented, to restore a little emotion to text messages.”
“I love writing something out, even at the age of 75, and looking at it,” Sherry said. “When I teach a child to write in cursive, they are awfully proud of themselves. It helps build that child’s confidence.”
Cursive writing boosts self-discipline and self-confidence. And when students write legibly and with confidence, academics as a whole improve.
Jacob recently mailed handwritten cards to his grandparents as part of his cursive writing practice, demonstrating his new-found skills. I asked him what he thinks of his cursive writing.
“I feel really good about it and I like the way it flows so easily across the page,” he said. “Right now, I print faster than I write cursive, but I know I’ll get faster with practice.”
Handwriting is a vital life skill. Cursive writing, in particular, helps teach our children not only how to write, but also how to think and learn.
We have to ask ourselves this question: Do we want future generations to know how to process and analyze information they come across so they can determine what they think about it, or do we want them to spit back out what someone has decided they should know as truth? There is an inherent danger in the latter way of teaching in my view.
Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the important role cursive plays in educating our children. After all, it’s about more than writing.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.