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How Important Is Learning Cursive, Really?

Updated on February 9, 2017

Introduction

The debate about the removal of cursive from most schools’ curriculums has become a heated issue in the field of education. Many readers may have noticed on their social media accounts that some people—mostly older people—are upset at the loss of this form of penmanship. New York Times online even did an article on the importance of handwriting and included a bit about cursive in the end, effectively adding flavor to the article by keying in to the controversy. A brilliant writing technique, but what evidence really exists that suggests cursive is so important as to deserve this much attention? (Konnikova, 2014)

Perhaps the matter can be chalked up to plain old agism. This issue seems to be another in the long list of “back in our day” and “you kids have it easy” accusations that are leveled against younger generations. That argument is perhaps a bit anecdotal, but allow us that one concession since this is precisely what pro-cursive advocates are relying on: purely anecdotal evidence.

Against Cursive Curriculum

The arguments against the inclusion of cursive writing in schools are heavily based on practical needs. Cursive is no longer the language of commerce and business, for example. Typing has replaced cursive as the primary means of communication for professional adults. If one is concerned with a child getting ahead in life, typing would be a much better skill to teach for its practical benefits.

Arguments arise quickly against typing, since it is an entirely different form of writing, and practicing cursive is said to exercise different thought processes that promote creativity. There is, however, a dearth of evidence for cursive’s supposed benefits. Proponents of the writing style constantly mention about creativity, but few studies can be found. In fact, no studies can be found. In researching this article, the only publications the author could find linking creativity to cursive writing are ones where people claim studies say that this is the case. No genuine scientific research was found.

For Cursive Curriculum

According to Berninger et al. (2006), cursive is managed by a distinctly different area of the brain than both print writing and typing. If different areas of the brain are activated, then it stands to reason that cursive writing should be practiced to give children full access to their various brain pathways and to improve their skill at contextual learning. Additionally, research by James (2012) revealed that both forms of handwriting (cursive and print) show more promise for learning letters than typing, which only involves recognizing the letter and pressing a button, not truly forming the letter. Therefore, cursive utilizes an additional pathway for brain development.

Another common argument is that historical documents are written in cursive. Typing is a relatively new form of writing, and many important documents were drafted by hand. Without the ability to read cursive, entire generations of people will lose the means to read these important texts.

As the New York Times article notes, learning cursive has been shown to help people with dyslexia and dysgraphia. These two conditions, involving the inability to perceive or produce words correctly, seem to improve with cursive practice. It stands to reason that if cursive can improve the writing skills of people with disabilities that specifically affect their comprehension of written language, then everybody would benefit from this practice as well (Montgomery, 2012).

Discussion

Cursive may use an additional pathway in the brain, but this is true of many other practices. Work by Prince et al. (1999) suggests that the languages in bilingual people’s brains are stored differently, and the act of translating between the two follows different pathways than merely reading or writing. Furthermore, as Campbell, MacSweeney, and Waters (2008) point out, Sign Language may very well involve different neurological processing than spoken languages. There are so many alternate pathways in the brain to be explore and exercised, but a line must be drawn somewhere, lest school children be forced to work around the clock, learning every language and form of writing and exploring every nook and cranny of their brain for its full potential. And this line must be drawn at practicality.

It is simply more beneficial for a child to learn how to speak a foreign language than it is to be able to read historical documents. Please, reader, take a moment to reflect on the last time that you read a historical text and how important this practice is to you. Should you be a historian, please reflect on the fact that this is a very specialized need and cursive is something you could have learned to read later in life much like the archaeologist learns to read hieroglyphs. There are a large number of historical documents written in other languages--and non-historical documents for that matter--and cursive will do nothing to open one’s mind to these. Its scope is incredibly limited.

It is at this point that the author must reiterate that we at The Neuro Log cannot locate ANY academic studies indicating that cursive is linked with creativity. The closest article discovered is by Psychology Today which refers to a study by Beringer (2012) in which children in second, fourth, and sixth grades could write essays faster by hand than by typing. This is used as evidence that the students were able to form their ideas quicker when writing by hand, and thus they were being more creative. No mention is given of how proficient these children were with typing or any of the other number of confounds potentially present in the study. Examining the article itself may allay these concerns, however it is not available online or through EBSCOHost at this time. And if this author cannot find it, chances are most people cannot find it either and are instead taking the Psychology Today article at its word.

The Psychology Today article is an example of the reasoning commonly employed by cursive proponents. It is a bait and switch. An article says that cursive promotes creativity and the author cites a scientific study. When the study is located, it actually says that handwriting in general helps children learn language. It does not say that cursive breeds creativity, only that writing by hand is important.

Finally, the argument that cursive helps people with dyslexia does not necessarily mean it holds inherent benefits for everyone. Note that helping people with a learning disability is a practical concern, not some theoretical model on accessing the brain’s full potential. Treatment for a developmental condition or learning disability may be specific to that condition or may involve alternative learning that would not be helpful to the neurotypical brain. Konnikova (2014) of the New York Times online cites instances in which people with brain damage–related inabilities to write or read will be able to do so in cursive but not print or vice versa. This fact, if true—the author does not make her sources clear—would indicate that these separate pathways are just that: different routes to the same goal of language comprehension, one not necessarily enhancing the other.

Conclusion

A lack of evidence for the benefits of cursive may simply be due to a lack of research in the area. Perhaps more should be done before anything conclusive can be said on the topic. But why then are people so upset, as if they know conclusively the importance of cursive writing? For what reason, other than personal anecdote, did people come to believe that this method of writing has value. A review of the relevant literature has yielded very few scientific studies on the matter and a great number of laypeople citing this nonexistent research. This is confirmation bias; it is reason before evidence. Because of these facts, this writer cannot help but conclude that the controversy over cursive is just another condescension from one generation to another. Be thankful that humans do not live for thousands of years, or modern man would have to endure lectures about the neurological benefits of hieroglyphics.

References

Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Jones, J., Wolf, B. J., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., . . .

Apel, K. (2006). Early Development of Language by Hand: Composing, Reading, Listening, and Speaking Connections; Three Letter-Writing Modes; and Fast Mapping in Spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), 61-92. doi:10.1207/s15326942dn2901_5

Berninger, V. “Evidence-Based, Developmentally Appropriate Writing Skills K–5: Teaching the Orthographic Loop of Working Memory to Write Letters So Developing Writers Can Spell Words and Express Ideas.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.

Campbell, R., Macsweeney, M., & Waters, D. (2007). Sign Language and the Brain: A Review. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 13(1), 3-20. Retrieved June 13, 2016 from http://jdsde.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/1/3.full

James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), 32-42. Retrieved June 13, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4274624/

Klemm, W. R. (2013, March 13). Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/why-writing-hand-could-make-you-smarter

Konnikova, M. (2014). What’s lost as handwriting fades? The New York Times (online), Retrieved June 13, 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html

Montgomery, D. (2012) The contribution of handwriting and spelling remediation to overcoming dyslexia. In T. N. Wydell & L. Fern-Pollak (Ed.), Dyslexia -- A comprehensive and international approach (pp. 109-146) InTech, DOI: 10.5772/30994. Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/dyslexia-a-comprehensive-and-international-approach/the-contribution-of-handwriting-and-spelling-remediation-to-overcoming-dyslexia

Price C. J., Green D. W., von Studnitz R. (1999). A functional imaging study of translation and language switching. Brain 122, 2221–2235

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