Cursive Handwriting Is On Its Way Out: Will That Affect Our Ability To Read?

Does learning cursive handwriting make us better readers? Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

From the august capital G to the hilly lowercase m, script is undoubtedly prettier than cold and stoic print. But is learning cursive handwriting useful? That has become the crucial question of late, as a growing number of states are striking the practice from their curricula, opting instead to groom kids for a tech-driven world dominated by typing.

Neuroscience has a wealth of information that confers the benefits of learning cursive. Critics, meanwhile, argue the evidence for learning cursive is outmoded, that spending the same time learning how to type proficiently on a keyboard engrains in kids a more useful, albeit less attractive, skill.

Setting the backdrop for the debate is the Common Core State Standards Initiative. A master blueprint that outlines what kids should be learning and at what age, Common Core also assumes the responsibility of recommending when schools should drop certain programs. Most recently, penmanship got the axe. Now, at least seven of the 45 states that have adopted the standards are pushing to reinstate cursive as a pillar of children’s education.

"Modern research indicates that more areas of the human brain are engaged when children use cursive handwriting than when they keyboard," Linden Bateman, a 72-year-old state representative from Idaho who pushes for cursive’s inclusion, told the Associated Press. "We're not thinking this through. It's beyond belief to me that states have allowed cursive to slip from the standards."

Among states whose school districts are going paperless, many educators simply see the sacrifice as too great. Just recently, School District 50 in Harvard, Ill. cut its instruction time for 3rd-grade cursive from half an hour a day to 10-15 minutes a day. “What we decided at that point was spending the half-hour a day on cursive handwriting with the emphasis of going paperless was not the best use of our time,” said Mary Cooke, District 50’s district literacy coordinator, to the Northwest Herald. The goal, Cooke said, is for students to be able to sign their name and read cursive.

But to what extent are schools stifling their students’ brainpower in this transition to digital literacy? 

Reading And Writing In The fMRI

In 2003, French researchers Marieke Longcamp and Jean-Luc Velay, from the Institut de Neurosciences Cognitive de la Méditerranée, performed a study that found the sensorimotor areas of the brain that light up when we read letters only do so after we’ve written them out by hand.

The team had adult volunteers lie in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine so the team could monitor the subjects’ brain activity. The volunteers were then asked to read either letters or pseudo-letters, symbols that resembled letters but ones the subjects had never read nor written. When the researchers looked at which areas of the brain lit up, they discovered an area within the premotor cortex involved with movement, called Exner’s area, activated when participants read the letters, despite them being motionless inside the fMRI. No activity was measured when subjects read the pseudo-letters.

Next, the subjects were asked to write out the letters and pseudo-letters, longhand. This time, both tasks activated Exner’s area, suggesting to researchers that the sensorimotor function of writing involves reading as well. In other words, kids that have trouble reading the Constitution — think of the loopy, provincial script as pseudo-letters to a third-grader — would be able to read it if the script were processed in the brain the same way as print.

“It’s really a matter of a region of the brain being linked to writing,” Velay said in a statement. “While looking at letters that you’ve learned to write, you reactivate this sensorimotor area. The movement involved in writing leaves a trace, a sensorimotor memory that is called upon when we read to identify letters.”

Delving deeper, this should mean that typing on a keyboard penetrates the same circuitry in the brain as handwriting. As it turns out, Velay and Longcamp performed a follow-up study that refuted this hypothesis, as they seemed to isolate the neural difference between writing words out and typing them on a computer. A total of 76 kindergarteners were given reading and writing tests, and then split into two groups. One group practiced writing longhand while the other typed on a keyboard. Four weeks later, the team brought the kids back and measured their reading ability.

“The letters learned by hand were more readily recognized than those learned with a keyboard,” explained Velay. When kids learned to write by hand, the motor areas of the brain learned to pick up symbols the hand had already written. Somehow there was a connection between the physical act of writing and the mental act of reading.

“If a child hasn’t learned to write by hand, he is unable to use sensorimotor memory for letters, which is missing. This could certainly diminish or slow down his ability to identify characters. You can imagine that, confronted with dozens of words or entire pages of text, he would have problems.”

A Modern Problem

Few schools subject their students only to typing. Manual handwriting is still practiced widely, so the controversy remains focused on cursive. But despite the second experiment’s limitations in only testing for handwriting, irrespective of print or script, it isn’t unreasonable to infer that if print-writing makes certain cognitive demands, learning the intricate flourishes of penmanship makes even more.

Unfortunately for students, the burden on many schools is simply one of balancing script’s usefulness with the time allotted in a school day. In addition to the bevy of subjects suggested by Common Core’s standards, the modern demands of technology all but force teachers to migrate their lesson plans.

At base, education is founded on preparing kids for the world they will eventually enter as adults. Learning to type serves that preparation, so it will stay in the classroom. Learning to write in cursive doesn’t, so it will retire to the art room. "If you just stop and think for a second about what are the sorts of skills that people are likely to be using in the future, Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of K-12 policy and leadership at the University of Southern California, told the AP, “it's much more likely that keyboarding will help students succeed in careers and in school than it is that cursive will."