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Cursive and brain science

I believe the purpose of school and education is to establish brain circuitry that enables our children to absorb and evaluate information, make choices and act upon those choices. So – does cursive have a role in wiring the brain?  If yes, then it likely needs to be taught.  If no, then it’s an antiquated tradition.  Today, I explored the science, rather than the opinions. 

Our local newspaper, SF Gate – the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle, published an opinion blog today on the question of cursive instruction.  The problem is the debate is between personal opinions and preferences. Most of the debate is belief-based – ranging from cursive is a traditional part of elementary education to "I hated cursive/ never use it/my child hates it/isn’t typing a better use of time".  Full disclosure – I take copious notes in all my meetings and they are all in cursive – it’s simply faster for me.

Andrea Gordon of ParentCentral from the Toronto Star sources some excellent research on the impact of cursive on neurological development.  Read her full article.

According to Toronto psychiatrist and neuroplasticity expert Dr. Norman Doidge - When a child types or prints, he produces a letter the same way each time. In cursive, however, each letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts symbol sequences into motor movements in the hand.

That sounds like brain development.

In the September 2007 issue of Brain and Language USC Neuroscientist Dr. Joseph Hellige and Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center post-doctoral fellow Dr. Maheen Adamson published a study of "hemispheric asymmetry for native English speakers identifying consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) non-words presented in standard printed form, in standard handwritten cursive form or in handwritten cursive with the letters separated by small gaps".

These results suggest a greater contribution of the right hemisphere to the identification of handwritten cursive, which is likely related visual complexity and to qualitative differences in the processing of cursive versus print.

Also sounds like brain development.

Andrea Gordon sourced another neurologist who ties cursive writing to emotional circuitry as well. 

Dr. Jason Barton, a neurologist and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, whose research focuses on the role of the human brain in vision. Barton's findings, using brain imaging, suggest we recognize handwriting the same way we distinguish faces, triggering similar emotional responses.

His studies, among the first of their kind, show that while the left visual word form area perceives and decodes words for their meaning in written language, the right side is where we interpret the style of writing, allowing us to identify the writer rather than the word, just as neighbouring areas in the right brain play a key role in allowing us to recognize faces.

As soon as that recognition kicks in, it activates what's known as a memory trace – a biochemical alteration in the brain created by something learned – and fans out, setting off other sensory memories.

"Once triggered by perception – whether of a face, a voice or handwriting – memory reverberates through all the senses and in all the corridors of your brain, bringing back emotions, knowledge, all the different facets of information and experiences with that person stored from the past," Barton says.

Our children will learn to type.  And email, IM, txt are all very impersonal – wrought with opportunities to be misunderstood.  Cursive may be tedious and as adults we may choose not to use it, but it helps our children’s brains develop and it can be fun.  It can be taught when they are in pre-school and kindergarten and apparently, it’s better for lefties and children struggling with dyslexia. So I vote for teaching cursive.

My children are excited to  learn cursive and our school uses Handwriting without Tears - which seems to be true.  They're also learning to type.  I don't really care what they use as adults - but I care that they think through what they plan to say and ensure that the reader can understand it (because it's relatively neat and coherent).  What do you think – should school make us learn things we might not use as adults because it develops our brain pathways?

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Reader Comments (7)

Too simplistic. Everything a child does causes the brain to grow or shape differently. So "that sounds like brain development" is a copout.

Imagine we invented a new eating utensil consisting entirely of a smooth cylinder of plastic (roughly the same diameter, but twice as long as a large tootsie roll). Let's call it a sploon.

"In cursive, however, each letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts symbol sequences into motor movements in the hand."... See More


"When eating with a sploon, however, each attempt to get spaghetti to the mouth is significantly different doe to the way the sploon amplifies small differences in position and angle. This is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts visual feedback into motor movements in the hand."

Would you sit there writing essays advocating children eat with sploons?

February 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Not sure what the point about "too simplistic" means. It sounds like this issue has been studied, and there is some research about how learning cursive will help brain development.

Stepping back for moment, this blog in the Chronicle illustrates a huge problem with how we set policy regarding education. On one hand, we have a university professor who studied this issue, and he points out that his results show that learning cursive is beneficial for the educational process and brain development. On the other hand, we have some idiot who basically says, "I don't like to write cursive, and I was bored by it in school, so therefore they shouldn't teach my daughter how to write cursive."

Imagine if these types of arguments were used to set policy in this country. Why teach math at all - everyone has a calculator all the time, right? And learning to type is a waste too - so there will be effective voice recognition software and putting fingers on a keyboard will become an anachronism. Why develop a rich vocabulary (learning words like "anachronism") when there is always an electronic dictionary nearby?

I can go on and on with more examples, but the key issue here is that I believe that there needs be some basis for people to make declarative arguments. Saying we shouldn't teach is subject because "I don't think it is worthwhile" is not debating - it is whining.

February 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNeal

If only I had a greenback for each time I came here.. Superb post.

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLorraine Goldberg

It's difficult to imagine ignoring anything that has the potential to promote brain growth in the young or mature. Try eating with chopsticks more often.

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Monica - funny you mention that. We took our family out to an Asian food restaurant and our 7 year old and 3.5 year old both wanted to eat with Chopsticks. The 7 year old was able to do it after a few tries. The 3.5 year old tried and then decided to use the chopsticks as spears and that worked. Creative problem solving.

" As Pulitzer Prize nominated neurologist Frank Wilson wrote in his book, “The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, And Human Culture,” “teachers should not try to educate the mind by itself.” If educators continue to dissolve the disciplines that involve the hands and the body in full movement, much of the knowledge will be poorly processed and inadequately learned.[ii]


December 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCursive Steve

Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

Reading cursive matters, but even children 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 abandon 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 most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

Cursive's cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, adds brain cells, 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.

So far — in this article, this thread, and elsewhere — whenever a devotee of cursive has claimed the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident when others examine the claimed support:

/1/ either the claim (of research support for cursive) provides no traceablew source,


/2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is usually misrepresented by cursive's defenders as a study "comparing print-writing with cursive"),


/3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

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!)

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.


Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

/1/ 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

/2/ 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:



(shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —

[AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
and the World Handwriting Contest

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKate Gladstone

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