By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries
Writing has been with us for thousands of years in some form – and today with technologies giving us more venues for formal communication – the written word is certainly as important today as it has ever been. The debates about Common Core standards and how to best teach critical lifelong skills in our educational system continue. Some states never adopted the standards, others only partially adopted the set of requirements, and a few originally adopted the standards and later repealed the Core.
Clearly, the Core remains controversial and that skills like writing are essential, not only as a communication tool, but, also as a critical precursor to other types of learning. Those who support a major role for the written word have found supporters among researchers and academics whose work is finding new value and evidence of the ongoing value of the printed word.
Regardless of the new standards, science is finding clear examples of value – such as that “cursive writing is a complex and central cultural skill” (Kersey and James, 2013; Kiefer et al., 2015), that involves “many brain systems and the integration of both motor and perceptual skills” (Vinci-Booher et al., 2016; Thibon et al., 2018).
In an undated Mental Floss article, titled “The Case for Cursive: 6 Reasons Why Cursive Handwriting is Good for Your Brain,” the author summarizes six key values researchers see for learning cursive:
1. Cursive provides a flow of thought as well as a flow of word.
2. Cursive helps you focus on content.
3. Cursive gets the entire brain working.
4. Cursive helps you retain more information.
5. Cursive may help improve motor control.
6. Cursive will make you a better speller.
BRAIN SCANS ARE INDICATING A CLEAR TIE BETWEEN CURSIVE AND LEARNING
Eva Ose Askvik and colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) just published the article “The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults,” in Frontiers in Psychology which examined the “long-term implications” of “digital devices [that] are increasingly replacing traditional writing by hand.” The article was accessed over 28,000 times in the first months it was posted.
Their research, which used “high-density electroencephalogram (HD EEG), was used in 12 young adults and 12, 12-year-old children to study brain electrical activity as they were writing in cursive by hand, typewriting, or drawing visually presented words that were varying in difficulty.” Their analysis of the data indicated that “the benefits of sensory-motor integration due to the larger involvement of the senses as well as fine and precisely controlled hand movements when writing by hand and when drawing, it is vital to maintain both activities in a learning environment to facilitate and optimize learning.”
Professor Askvik explains to Charleston Hub readers that “we know that handwriting is important for learning, we believe that schools should continue learning this skill to children. It is also important that these neuronal patterns within the brain are being developed early in life.”
“We believe it is vital that children are taught handwriting at school to establish the neuronal patterns in the brain that are important and beneficial for learning,” Askvik continues. “Children should, early on, learn to master this skill and the skill can be considered a necessary life-skill. Children, as well as adults, should continue with their handwriting practices. Today, we know that the handwriting skill makes you learn and remember the content better whereas the long-term implications of the digital replacements are still largely unknown.”
Askvik co-author Audrey van der Meer, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at NTNU, stresses that “the intricate hand and finger movements when writing and drawing by hand to be crucial. Therefore, we propose ‘visual note-taking’, allowing one to write keywords, draw boxes and arrows, as well as making small drawings. I think it is important for children to receive a minimum of handwriting tuition at school. In this digital era, we risk raising a generation of children that cannot write a grocery list, keep a diary, or compose a handwritten love letter. Of course, writing by hand is a difficult skill to learn for young children, but it stimulates their brain!”
French researcher Nathalie Bonneton-Botte published her research last year in which she investigated the use of tablet computers to create a “digital learning environment” for pre-school students that could both “enhance teachers’ knowledge of writer characteristics and their management of classroom diversity” as well as give students a hybrid environment merging the dominance of apps with the need to explore the basics of writing. “In France, the educational and cultural system still favours cursive handwriting . The production of writing can be done either on digital media (keyboard, mobile phone and tablet) or by handwriting, using cursive or manuscript scripts. The combination of digital media and handwriting is possible when tablets are equipped with a stylus. In the school context, digital learning environments such as tablet apps can scaffold the teaching and learning process in an interesting way.”
TEACHING BOTH CURSIVE AND KEYBOARDING SKILLS
Dr. Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association and recently co-authored a book chapter on supporting middle grade students as they learn to use both keyboarding and writing in their assignments. Their research focused on how “the positive link between effective transcription skills (handwriting, keyboarding and spelling) and learning” and how weak transcription skills “constrain thinking planning and translation. Efficient use of all writing tools (pencils, pens, computer keyboards, including the computer mouse) supports students’ learning and enhances their written expression. Furthermore…, students need explicit instruction in handwriting and computer keyboarding across the middle years of school so they can develop the same flexibility.”
EEG studies have also been done to gauge “the importance of cursive handwriting over typewriting for learning in the classroom” In a review of recent literature, researchers found several studies supporting the benefits for learning when taking notes by hand compared to laptop note-taking; however, contradictory results have led some experts to recommend that “it is essential to further investigate the long-term implications for learning and how the processes of cursive writing, typewriting, and drawing are working in the brain within a developmental perspective.”
A 2019 Italian study recently found that “there is increasing evidence that mastering handwriting skills play an important role on academic achievement. This is a slow process that begins in kindergarten: at this age, writing is very similar to drawing (i.e. scribbles); from there, it takes several years before children are able to write competently. By studying “whether the development of academic writing skills could be effectively supported by training strategies focusing on cursive writing,” the tentative results “showed that performance on prerequisites and writing and reading skills were better overall among the children in the intervention group as compared to control group.”
Another U.S. study sought to explore whether “even though cursive is difficult to instruct and time-consuming to learn, it offers great benefits as it increases neural activity and helps with keyboarding skills,” especially since in the past few years, “cursive has gained renewed attention in the United States, with multiple states passing bills that make cursive instruction required, and provide teachers with resources for instruction .”
A 2020 conference paper comparing memory between handwriting and typeface found that “handwritten characters are more likely to be retained in memory than typefaces. Specifically, familiar handwritten characters are more likely to be retained in memory.”
A 2019 study by Clemson University’s Anna Hall reviewed “research on early writing instruction suggests that experimenting with composing helps children develop phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness, which are skills associated with future reading and writing proficiency. Early childhood research also supports the development of foundational early writing skills as a means of promoting higher-level composition skills such as organizing, planning, and revising, as well as future legibility and speed in handwriting. The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) report concluded that name-writing skills yielded significant correlations with later reading abilities including decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling.”
Regardless of the new standards, science is finding clear examples of value that deserve greater attention by educational standards groups – such as that “cursive writing is a complex and central cultural skill (Kersey and James, 2013; Kiefer et al., 2015), involving many brain systems and the integration of both motor and perceptual skills (Vinci-Booher et al., 2016). The struggle over educational standards in light of the predominance of computers in everyone’s daily life are bound to continue.
OTHER RESEARCHERS FOCUS ON THE LARGER CULTURAL SHIFT
Children under the Common Core are not required/taught cursive, with children never developing a traditional signature and unable to read cursive at all. This represents a sudden shift in communication created by technology-availability rather than some accepted shifts in cultural/educational pedagogy. How ‘radical’ a change is this? Is this permanent? Can we expect more rapid cultural shifts in the future due to globalization and technology?
Dr. Ruth Page, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham in England, focuses her research on the language people use when they tell stories, particularly in social media contexts. Page sees value in both systems of expression. In her research she posits social media writing as legitimate, creative and representing a major shift in communication – of particular significance in our changing global world.
“In the UK,” Page explains, “my experience has been that students are still taught cursive handwriting at school and still hand in all their work in handwritten forms, but this sits alongside being taught a range of IT skills so that students know and are able to develop skills in other kinds of digital literacy (e.g. creating typed texts, PPT, publisher etc etc). So I don’t see the changes in what is being taught in pedagogic contexts as a ‘radical’ break but more as a ‘both/and’ scenario where new skills are taught alongside old. Also there is much more to writing than the digital/handwritten forms – knowing how to write for a particular audience and in a range of styles is also important. I don’t know what kinds of cultural shifts we will see in the future, but technology will only be part of this (e.g. changes in communication styles are also related to broader socio-economic changes too).”
Page’s co-authored 2014 book Researching Language and Social Media – A Student Guide is truly groundbreaking. “The sheer amount of interaction which takes place within social media contexts means there is a wealth of material that can be considered,” The research found. Most social media today is used for informal communication, but this book describes how individuals using new types of communication are able to individualize their messages, reach audiences impossible before this.”
“In the academic world, there is a stronger expectation that we as teachers will use technology to communicate our teaching resources to others,” she continues. “This has given rise to models of education like MOOCs and the ‘flipped classroom’, which arguably can support longer, life-long learning in the first case and can give us more time in face-to-face settings for discussion and practice, rather than simply conveying content.”
“For businesses, they now have the opportunity to manage their reputation and reach out to customers/clients online,” Page explains, “they need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to complaints and inquiries in a way that can be seen in the public domain more easily than before.”
“I always expect to learn a great deal from my students about how they use technologies, especially services and apps that I don’t use myself and that vary according to international contexts (e.g. how students from China use technology there). My observation is that communication online is increasingly multimodal, and that image and sound are increasingly important as ways that people send messages to each other (e.g. via SnapChat).”
To many, however, this shift includes a major loss the fear that many have about the ‘loss’ involved – especially since this is very generational. Page would disagree with this perspective. “I don’t think that ‘loss’ is the main issue at stake, but rather that the styles of communication which can differ in all kinds of contexts (not just technological) mean we need to listen to others more carefully and try to understand their perspectives on what they are saying rather than dismissing what appears to be ‘different’ as ‘wrong’ or ‘incomprehensible’.”
“Technology has impacted dramatically on handwriting skills and a decline in manual dexterity, legibility and penmanship where keyboard and mouse input replaces the need to write by hand” Queensland College of Art’s Libbi Reed explained in a 2017 presentation. “Handwriting has many recorded benefits, and has been a primary communication tool for centuries, but a key driver for the research is countering the loss of fine motor skills and access to memory and the subconscious for creative expression that the act of handwriting allows. As digital technologies and tools redefine how we communicate, the loss of handwriting can be countered, through using technology as a solution, engaging with emerging tools for a truly immersive, skills building experience.”
Retired University of Washington education professor Virginia Berninger noted in a 2019 New York Times article that “after they got rid of handwriting, now they’re all rediscovering it. People mistakenly assumed because we had computers, we didn’t need handwriting. We need both.”
In the 2020 conference paper, Comparison of the Remembering Ability by the Difference Between Handwriting and Typeface, it was found that “memorization tasks are known to be effectively done with typefaces that are hard to read [and] handwritten characters are more likely to be retained in memory than typefaces. Specifically, familiar handwritten characters are more likely to be retained in memory.”
However, is this enough to bring cursive back into the mainstream of K-12 education? Probably not. A telling article by Northern Michigan University’s Mariel Morton – with the witty title of “Thumbs: The Brain’s (New) Writing Instrument” – argued that the demise of handwriting had a diminishing effect on creativity, “stimulates the brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS): highlighting what is right in front the notetaker and allowing them to be more focused on the material,” that research is showing that “the manner in which the brain uses writing to take notes actually accelerates students’ learning: improving both their test scores and their ability to pick up a new language.” She adds that research shows that “due to the intricacy of cursive, the lettering is more demanding, making one’s brain work harder. Increased brain activity results in a higher level of coordination and effort amongst students.”
Researchers see many very positive and exciting opportunities that await today’s students…even if they must chose to learn cursive in an art class.
In the final part of this series on cursive, the focus is on insights from researchers seeking to make the future of education stronger, students better able to deal with the realities of our technological age, while still providing options to personalize their work and their education.
Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries