Memory Medic

How to improve everyday memory.

Biological and Psychology Benefits of Learning Cursive

Don't let your schools stop teaching cursive.

In response to a growing trend where public schools are dropping the teaching of cursive, I wrote a blog post defending the value of learning cursive.1 The new Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states, no longer require the teaching of cursive. But homeschoolers are being encouraged to teach cursive.2 My post lamenting this backward move by the educational professionals drew a huge amount of commentary, 89 posts thus far, some negative, some positive.

I now realize the case for cursive needs to be made more explicitly. First, I want to avoid the distractions over the definition of “cursive” or arguments over the respective merits of different schools of penmanship. I don’t think these things matter much in terms of cognitive development, as long as we are talking about handwriting that is not printing and in which many of the letters are connected.

A few of the benefits of learning cursive may happen with learning to hand print, but here is my summary of the special benefits of cursive:

Biological

Hand-eye coordination is a major developmental feature. If you Google “developmental benefits of learning cursive” you will find numerous blog and news posts that emphasize the developmental benefits of learning cursive.

Whatever inherited level of sensory-motor coordination people may have, they can always improve on it with practice. Most parents observe this when teaching a child to throw and catch a ball. Think about what is going on in the brain as such learning progresses. The brain is creating new circuitry to evaluate what is seen, the speed of what is seen, the movements required, and the speed and timing of movements. This circuitry becomes a lasting part of the brain. This circuitry can be recruited for use in other hand-eye coordination tasks. That helps to explain why so many student athletes can play more than one sport.

Learning to write by hand has these same features, plus of course there is a thinking element involved that does not occur with simple throw and catch movements. The thinking level is magnified in cursive because the specific hand-eye coordination requirements are different for every letter in the alphabet. Moreover, in handwriting the movements are continuously variable, which is much more mentally demanding than making single strokes, as in printing A, E, F, H, and so on. Even so, because cursive letters are more distinct than printed letters, children may learn to read more easily, especially dyslexics. 

Handwriting dynamically engages widespread areas of both cerebral hemispheres. Virginia Berninger, a researcher and professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says that brain scans during handwriting show activation of massive regions of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory.3

Learning to type makes little demand on the brain: you just have to punch a key. Learning to  touch type (typing without looking at the keys) is mentally demanding, and I encourage that kind of teaching too. One should not be taught at the expense of the other. 

Psychological 

I think that attitude and motivation have the greatest impact on a child’s success in school. This conclusion is supported by a lot of research literature and anecdotes from teachers. Both are affected by what the child genuinely believes about his capabilities to learn. As a child learns to master academic challenges, self-confidence emerges and provides a drive to learn more because the child knows that achievement is possible. Learning cursive is an easy way for a child to discover important tactics for learning as well as the emotional benefit of being able to master a task. 

I am assuming here that cursive is still taught the way I learned it over 50 years ago. First, the child is taught how to hold a pencil, a relaxed but firm grip where the pencil is held with more or less equal pressure from the thumb and the first two fingers. I see kids these days hold pencils in all sorts of scrunched-up, awkward and hard-to-control ways. Then they are shown how to engage the whole arm in writing movements, not just trying to control all movements with the fingers. I think this important because the motor cortex has such discrete control over fingers that the brain is constantly being confused by all the various options for drawing segments of a letter. Letting the arm participate reduces the cognitive load over finger control. Handwriting becomes easier to generate, less tiresome, and eventually more attractive. There may well be other effective mechanical approaches, but in any case, these have to be mastered first, otherwise the student may become frustrated.

Key principles of learning and memory are embedded in learning to hand write. First, the child learns just one letter at a time. The student is shown a cursive letter and asked to duplicate it. The feedback is immediate. The child sees in one eye fixation both the ideal and the child’s version. The child then tries again, and again sees immediately the comparison between the ideal and their current state of skill. With each attempt, the child learns without being told or scolded, how much improvement is occurring. Progress is all under the child’s control. The child knows it, and also knows that better results can occur with each thoughtful attempt. The child learns to pay more attention (which in itself is a crucial skill in this age of multi-tasking). The child starts to take ownership over the effort. This is the same thing that happens when children draw pictures. Here, they are drawing pictures of letters and they get to do it where they know what the standard of excellence is and they get to privately assess how well they are doing. Cursive is an art form. If you belief art is important, you just have to support cursive teaching.

Since, reproducing a single letter is rather easy, the child knows that success if obtainable. Positive feedback, instant and specific, comes from the very act itself.

Without realizing it, children learning cursive are also learning self-discipline. I can’t think of any school task more important than that.

As each letter is mastered, the child says “I can do this! I can even do this better!” Then it is just a matter of moving on to mastery of the next letter and eventually to the relatively easy task of joining letters. Maybe the best emotional boost of all is when children learn they have acquired this skill on their own. All the teacher did was show them how to hold and move a pencil and show them the objective. Nobody force-fed this new skill into their brain. They did it themselves.

I might add that once a child learns cursive they no longer have to feel embarrassed over their ignorance at not being able to read notes from Grandma

* * * *

If your school is shutting down cursive instruction, I hope you marshal opposition. If it is too late, maybe some kind of out-of-school program would work.

One more thing: help the school child in your life excel in school by getting them my inexpensive e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort, available from Amazon or Smashwords.com

Sources:

1. Klemm, W. R. What Learning Cursive Does for Your Brain. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/what-learning-cursive-does-your-brain

2. Blumenfeld, S. The Benefits of Cursive Writing. http://www.home-school.com/Articles/the-benefits-of-cursive-writing.php

3. Hatfield, Iris (handwriting coach). Top 10 Reasons to Learn Cursive. http://www.newamericancursive.com/learncursive

William Klemm, Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.

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