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?