National Edition

You'd think cursive doesn't matter anymore, but it does

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, June 5 2014 9:29 a.m. MDT

Because so many adults still communicate in cursive, perhaps what's needed is a transition period during which students still learn to read it — that can be taught relatively quickly — but no longer go through the laborious and painstaking process of learning to write it.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Cursive writing and handwriting in general are dying arts in grade schools, as students shift to the keyboard. But some psychologists think we may be losing more than we know.

"Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand," reports Maria Konnikova in the New York Times, "but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how."

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, told Konnikova. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain."

The long slow death of cursive has not been unexpected.

“Cursive writing is a traditional skill that has been replaced with technology,” Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax, Virginia, Education Association told the Washington Post last year. “Educators are having to make choices about what they teach with a limited amount of time and little or no flexibility. Much of their instructional time is consumed with teaching to a standardized test.”

Not everyone is nostalgic about the changes.

“What I typically hear for keeping cursive is how nice it is when you receive a beautifully cursive-written letter. It’s like a work of art,” Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and a leading expert in handwriting instruction, told the Washington Post. “It’s pretty, but is that a reason for keeping something, given that we do less and less of those kinds of cards anymore?”

In a way the two camps pass like ships in the night, it seems.

The advocates of efficiency, including the authors of the new Common Core, which creates little space for handwriting instruction, are focused on the heavy learning load teachers and students bear and see the old skill of paper and pen as antiquated.

Then there are the scientists like William Klemm, a neuroscientist at Texas A&M, who see the cognitive development from learning to write by hand as much more critical than simply getting words down on paper.

Writing in Psychology Today, Klemm argues that "cursive is an important tool for cognitive development, particularly in training the brain to learn 'functional specialization,' that is capacity for optimal efficiency."

"Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice," Klemm writes, adding that there is a "spill-over benefit for thinking skills used in reading and writing. To write legible cursive, fine motor control is needed over the fingers. Students have to pay attention and think about what and how they are doing it. They have to practice. Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that do not participate in keyboarding."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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