Is Research on Cursive and the Brain Enough?

Ok. There are clearly better ways to spend a Sunday morning…

But I came across this article about what research says learning cursive does to your brain.

As I am sure is happening in many districts, some parents, community members, and School Committee members have raised the issue of how much emphasis they believe we should be placing on handwriting, especially cursive.

Others will undoubtedly find this article, and it will certainly become part of our handwriting/cursive conversation.

I'm especially concerned because our handwriting conversations seem to have an undercurrent of, at best, iPads interfere with the teaching of handwriting, and, at worst, we shouldn't have primary grades iPads because they interfere with the teaching of handwriting, conclusions that I'm not sure are valid, even if iPads may draw attention to a larger issue.

The article points to improved “efficiency thinking” and “fine motor control” when teaching cursive, over print or keyboarding. The article does not make the argument that “therefore cursive should continue to be emphasized in school,” but this article is likely to be used to make that argument.

I want to be clear. I am not concerned about this article or the research-based conclusions it shares. I am concerned about the inappropriate ways others might try to use this article to further arguments/conclusions that cannot actually be drawn from this article (in fairness, I think it would happen from a place of naïveté, not duplicitiy).

So, although the research in this article seems valid and reliable and the conclusions it shares seem appropriate, I believe using the results from this article to further an argument that we should continue teaching cursive is invalid. There are significant issues with using the article in this way.

Fallacy 1: The Rubiks Cube Curriculum
The biggest issue is that the demonstrated benefits have nothing to do with the purpose of cursive or handwriting. There is nothing here about improving the quality or efficiency of (written) communication, just of certain kinds of thinking.

That is akin to suggesting we teach chess because it improves logical thinking. Even the argument that we should teach geometric proofs to build logical thinking has lost traction in favor of teaching logical thinking in authentic, not contrived (even if traditional and conventional) contexts. At other times, I have referred to this as the “Rubiks Cube Curriculum” – placing curricular focus and value on something of little practical value in order to garner some theoretical gain in some abstract cognitive ability, even though early psychological research shows there is little to no transfer of those abilities to real world application when taught that way (out of context).

The very next question that should arise from this research is, “Are there other, more authentic ways to efficiently develop efficiency thinking or fine motor control in students?” The question after that should be, “Is there a significant difference, in any practical way, not just statistically, in these two 'benefit areas' using cursive over print or keyboarding?”

Only if the answer is “no” to the first and “yes” to the second should we start having the conversation about if cursive should be the vehicle we use to develop those skills. The article does not raise these questions (And frankly, it may not be their responsibility to do so. But it is of anyone trying to use the article to say anything beyond what the article actually says.).

Fallacy 2: The Importance of Teaching Both Cursive and Print
The next problem with how some might try to leverage this article is to point to the “importance of teaching both print and cursive over keyboarding” (or even arguing we need to teach all three). Why not choose only one form of handwriting, print or cursive? It is true that schools traditionally teach print in the primary grades and then introduce cursive a couple years later. But other schools teach only cursive, starting in the primary grades. No research findings on this issue are presented in the article (again, recognizing that it is likely legitimately beyond the scope of this article).

Fallacy 3: The False Dichotomy
The third issue is that a misinterpretation of the conclusions in the article could be used to set up a false “dichotomy” (trichotomy?). The potential argument leveraging these results to say “cursive over keyboarding” (or even cursive over handwriting) assumes that we are only going to pick one. In truth, people in our society need to develop a practical level of proficiency in written communication, both “electronic” and “manual.” There is no research here about “blended” environments, learning both keyboarding and handwriting…

Fallacy 4: Handwriting Passes the Straight-Face Test on Return On Investment
The fourth issue is the assumption that schools have an infinite amount of instructional time and can teach everything anyone in the community (parents, businesses, community groups, seniors, other community members) believe students ought to learn (or even just believe “it would be good for them to know”)…

In truth, state curricular mandates have never been larger or more demanding (and cursive is not even part of the Common Core Curriculum for Language Arts!).

Schools have to examine every potential topic someone thinks we should teach from the perspective of return on investment, bang for the buck. So, requests for teaching content need to be weighed against how much time they take to teach well, and the practical value of developing such knowledge or skills in students, COMPARED TO ALL OTHER REQUESTS/DEMANDS. We have to be selective and deliberate in choosing where we put our energies. It is our responsibilty to be choosy and discriminating in what we choose to teach. (I feel the same way when businesses seem to be asking to shift their responsibility for job training onto public schools…)

I'm not even sure that advocates for an emphasis on teaching handwriting have looked at how much of modern written communication is hand written vs electronic. Clearly, the proportion of hand written to electronic written communication has shifted enormously, even since most of the parents of our current students were themselves students…

The real question should be, “How good do people today need to be at handwriting in order to do the amount of handwritten written communication needed today (and therefore, how much time and emphasis should schools put on it – what's 'good enough')?” The arguments about how nice it is to receive a handwritten (cursive) letter just have no real bearing when return-on-investment is considered (unless, perhaps, if we are discussing moving cursive to the Fine Arts curriculum).

I'm not sure that handwriting passes the straight face test on return on investment. Regardless, this article presents no such analysis (not the authors' job, but certainly the responsibility of anyone using the article to argue for the teaching of cursive).

Final Thoughts

And I won't get into questions around what are the best (not simply traditional) methods, approaches, and strategies for young people to develop proficiency in handwritten or electronic writing.

And I won't get into questions about why we are spending so much time debating the mechanical “drawing” of letters and words, rather than debating how to help young people use those words to express, inform, create, and persuade.

So, this article presents some interesting (research based) conclusions about the teaching of handwriting and cursive. But it is important to remember (and I'm sure the authors would echo this thought) that the only conclusions that can be drawn from this article are the specific conclusions this article shares.

In response to folks who share this article as evidence we should continue (or return to) our emphasis on teaching cursive, our questions should include the following:

  • If we believe schools are responsible for teaching efficiency thinking, what are the best evidence-based ways to do so?
  • What are the best evidence-based ways to develop fine motor control?
  • What is the research on the impact of learning handwriting on the development of effective communication skills?
  • What form of handwriting should we teach? What are the criteria for deciding?
  • To what level of proficiency should we develop handwriting? What's good enough?

 

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
This entry was posted in Early Childhood Education, Food For Thought, Misc. and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Research on Cursive and the Brain Enough?

  1. Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)
    Further research demonstrates that the fastest, clearest handwriters are neither the print-writers nor the cursive writers. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them – making only the simplest of joins, omitting the rest, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    _Reading_ cursive — as the author notes — still matters. Even children, though, 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 — http://appstore.com/readcursive .) 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?

    Educated adults increasingly quit 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 even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why mandate it?

    Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you stunningly graceful, adds brain cells, instills proper etiquette and patriotism, 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.

    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!)
    Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, then verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.
    The individuality of print-style (or other non-cursive style) writings is further shown by this: six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the writing on an unsigned assignment) which of her 25 or 30 students wrote it.
    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/ Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    /2/ 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

    /3 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) —

    Yours for better letters,

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

Comments are closed.