Cursive, Print, or Type? The Point is To Keep Writing

| March 26, 2014
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Loops And Swirls: You might have the best cursive handwriting in the land, but your kids probably don't. Does learning to write in cursive help kids' brains grow?By Cory Turner

Across the country, many school districts dropped cursive from their curricula years ago. The new Common Core State Standards now being implemented in most states never mention the word “cursive.” Given longhand’s waning popularity, lawmakers in several states, including Tennessee, are now trying to legislate a cursive comeback.

The arguments in favor of cursive usually revolve around heritage or tradition. Some parents want their children to be able to read a letter from Grandma as well as our nation’s founding documents. Some cursive supporters also invoke science, arguing that learning cursive helps young brains grow more than learning basic printing does.

Professor Amy Bastian, a motor neuroscientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has dedicated her career to studying how the brain talks to the body. “The more variety of things you do in the fine motor domain, the more variety of hand movements you make, will improve your dexterity,” Bastian says.

That may sound like a ringing endorsement for cursive handwriting, but when asked if cursive writing is better for a child’s development than printing, Bastian makes it clear: She doesn’t know. Cursive is good, she insists, but it’s not certain that it’s better or more important for a child’s development than printing.

“It really doesn’t matter if it’s manuscript or cursive. It is kind of silly, in a way, that you have state legislatures getting all tied up in this.”

Steve Graham, who studies children’s writing and teaches education at Arizona State University, believes that the current cursive debate misses the problem.

“It really doesn’t matter if it’s manuscript or cursive,” Graham says. “It is kind of silly, in a way, that you have state legislatures getting all tied up in this.”

All of the researchers NPR spoke with agree that cursive is good, but none would argue that it is better or more important than printing. The evidence just isn’t there. As long as children are writing in school, it doesn’t really matter if the letters curl and connect. So, problem solved. Or is it?

“Imagine a world without handwriting,” bellows a deep-voiced narrator. “It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.”

So begins a promotional video for a conference geared toward researchers and educators held a few years ago, called “Handwriting in the 21st Century?”

The question mark at the end of the title says it all. The premise of the gathering, according to the video: “Handwriting instruction is in danger of becoming increasingly marginalized.”

If the claim is to be believed, that’s a bad thing. And lots of reading specialists and academics believe it. It turns out, the real fear among those who study kids and handwriting is not that our schools will stop teaching cursive; it’s what Steve Graham of ASU has noticed in recent years: “We don’t see much writing going on at all across the school day,” Graham says.

What are kids doing instead?

“Filling in blanks on worksheets,” Graham says. “One-sentence responses to questions, maybe in a short response summarizing information.”

In other words, not enough good old-fashioned composition and too much choosing among (A) This, (B) That or (C) All of the above. Some of those fighting to keep cursive in schools argue that computers are the enemy. Instead of writing, kids are typing on the keyboard, they say. But there are two problems with that argument.

First, many researchers say that learning to type is a good thing. And second: “Schools are not teaching keyboarding,” says Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington.

Berninger is a big champion of both handwriting and typing. She’s worried that they have been nudged to the side by crowded state standards.

“In the 21st century, you teach kids to be multilingual by hand,” Berninger says.

The new Common Core State Standards place considerable emphasis on the importance of composition, which suggests students may be doing more writing as states implement the core. But that means that right now the pressure is on teachers, administrators and textbook writers to make sure students get the time and instruction they need to become fluent writers.

“If we expect kids to develop mastery in anything and develop fluency in anything, they have to be doing it on a regular basis,” says Scott Beers, who teaches education at Seattle Pacific University.

That’s true not just in kindergarten or first grade, but in grade after grade. Focus on handwriting early and often, experts say, print or cursive or both. Then, as kids’ brains develop, gently lay the groundwork for typing.

It’s not either-or. It’s choice (C) All of the above. The good kind.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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  • senzie

    My sister teaches ESL classes for teenagers and adults. The past two sessions she has the class that is ready to make the switch to regular high school, college or technical schools. However, a while ago, she gave the class a historical document and all but two of the students couldn’t make sense of it. She was puzzled by this. It turned out as one student stated, they couldn’t read it because all the letters were connected together.

    I took my children to an original copy of the Bill of Rights.

    It is written in cursive.

  • Susan

    Students write less because teachers have less time to mark extended piece of writing and more content that they have to check off. Good writing which involves pre-writing, drafting, revising, proof-reading and publishing takes a lot of time.
    Personally, I think it is an essential skill to have whatever way the letters are formed. Certainly technology is not to blame. Quite the opposite, typing is an invaluable tool for students with dyspraxia, autism, and ADHD.

    • momamia

      Yes, without a school that allows my child to type 95% of his written work, we’d be miserable. Dyslexia and dysgraphia hinder a student writer in several ways.

  • Auntie

    I took my grand niece to a “nice” restaurant. She is in 5th grade & could no read menu because it was in cursive. She now knows she needs to be able to read cursive.

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  • Nan Jay Barchowsky

    Great article! Thank you. Here follows my 2¢.

    “Cursive” is known to many as the method of letter formation that dates to the latter part of the 19th century. There are other cursives.

    Why teach cursive? Why teach conventional cursive, the method that joins letters with loops, when more and more people can’t read it?

    Just some of the misguided reasons I often see:
    1) It strengthens cognition. No, any writing by hand will do that.
    2) It is faster. No, that’s never been proved.
    3) We need to read the Constitution and Granny’s letters. Not a problem: it takes less than an hour to learn to read the conventional cursive alphabet.
    4) It benefits fine motor skill. Then why do I see so many media illustrations of children writing their cursive lesson with death grips on pencils? No one is teaching the relaxed pen hold that is essential to fluent writing!
    5) We need signatures. No, every hand makes an individual mark.

    A variety of cursives have been used ever since the Romans gave us our western alphabet more than 2000 years ago. There must be a better way, a better cursive, one that would be easier to read and faster to write.

    My vote is for italic, an easy-to-learn alphabet that is also easy to read. An option is to teach print-like script and guide that alphabet into something more fluent and individual; it’s often called “hybrid” writing.

    As first stated, handwriting in elementary grades strengthens cognition. So children do need it. They move their hands and fingers to form letters. The action goes into their motor memory to be recalled for reading.

    Advocates of conventional cursive may truly believe the unproven, unresearched claims that cursive is superior. Frequently, the media backs up this belief by misinterpreting and misquoting researchers. For the sake of better education for our children, serious, thoughtful attention is needed.