Saturday, August 24, 2013

Teaching Cursive in Schools

Image credit: Steve Blow/
Today was Friday, August 23, 2013.

The kids are heading back to school, and it's time once again to think about what it is we teach, and don't teach, our kids.

By the time I retired from teaching, the vast majority of my elementary school students, even the fifth- and sixth-graders, could not read my cursive handwriting, and mine is a lot better than Steve Blow's (see illustration).  That's because schools have more or less stopped teaching handwriting, specifically cursive.  They don't even do a very good job of teaching kids to print, in my humble opinion.  Many kids write the letters in such a way that writing becomes a laborious exercise in torture.  As a matter of fact, I am now seeing younger teachers who use some of these bad habits passing them on to their students!

A lot of people bemoan or make fun of the way teachers used to tell kids letters and numbers had to be written a certain way.  (Example: to write the "printed" lower-case letter f on lined paper, start about 1/4 of the way from the top, and slightly to the right of where you want the letter to go.  Bring your pencil up and around to the left, then straight down, ending right on the "base" line.  Then cross your letter f right about in the middle, maybe just a smidge higher than the middle, going from left to right.   Lots and lots of kids start writing the letter from the bottom, then can't remember which way the loop at the top goes.  The cross is more often right to left, rather than the other way around, and often slanted.

You may have been one of those "off road" types who rebelled at being told to form your printed or cursive letters a certain way, but I can tell you one thing: kids who don't learn to write correctly (starting with printing) always, always, always write more slowly, and I would say that ninety percent of the time, their writing is hard to read, to boot.  Part of learning to write is learning to do it fast, so you can take notes, jot down ideas, dash off a letter or thank-you note, or make a quick shopping list.  For most people, writing is not an end in itself.  Rather, it is a means to an end.

I can tell you one other thing.  When kids have trouble writing, they also have trouble reading, guaranteed.  Not just reading their own writing: that's nearly impossible.  I mean reading anything, written or printed!  In my career, I almost always got the low readers, the struggling readers, the reluctant readers, and they always had trouble writing!  And I don't mean writing sentences or paragraphs.  I mean writing individual letters and putting them together to make words!

When I went to school, cursive was something we learned in the third grade, and our teachers began to write in cursive on the board from that grade onward.  When I went to college, I don't think I could have taken notes as well as I did if I hadn't learned cursive.   Nowadays, they don't spend much time after first grade teaching kids to write their letters, and cursive is no longer a part of the curriculum.

There are actually some benefits of learning to read and write cursive. For one thing, it trains the brain to learn "functional specialization," which is a multisensory way of learning something. In the case of learning cursive, kids have to coordinate sensation, movement control, and thinking.  When we do this, multiple areas of our brains have to coordinate and work together.   Kids also learn fine motor control when they learn to write in cursive.  How do we know this?  A new field of research, called "haptics" studies the interaction between touch, hand movements, and brain function.  According to studies, cursive writing trains the brain to integrate visual and tactile information and increase the manual dexterity.  

Whether you print or write in cursive, you have to locate each stroke relative to other strokes in the letter (One stroke is from the time your pen or pencil touches the paper until the time you lift the writing instrument from the paper.  The letter s has one stroke.  The lower-case f has two strokes.)  You also have to learn and remember appropriate size of letters, and develop categorization skills to remember the difference between b and d, p and q, n and u, t and f, m and w, or g and j.   If your letters are slanted, all the letters must be slanted the same way, for legibility.   Learning these things is actually good for your brain.

These days, keyboarding is taught as a skill.  (That's typing to us old fogies.)  Isn't learning to use a keyboard just as good as learning to print or type?  Well, functionally speaking, yes, but brain imaging shows us that there are parts of the brain that we use when we write in cursive that we don't use when we are keyboarding.  In addition, in studies using "pre-literate" five-year-olds who were taught to write some cursive letters, the researchers found that the brain's "reading circuit," was activated by handwriting, but not during typing.  By "reading circuit," I mean the regions of the brain that people use when they read.  So I was right after all - the kids who had trouble writing also had trouble reading, and there is indeed a correlation.  (This is an example of the kind of thing teachers know by experience, but can't necessarily prove until some scientist with interest in the subject, time on his hands, and funding from somewhere or other does a study.)

Even if you are not convinced that learning cursive will help your brain function better, cursive is still a cultural tradition worth preserving.  Imagine not being able to read cursive - and not being able to consult original documents written long ago!  Not only is it of benefit in studying history, it is also an art form that ought to be preserved.

My two cents, anyway.  :-)

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