The Tennessee and South Carolina legislatures are now considering bills that would require the teaching of cursive handwriting in their public schools. If this legislation passes, these states will join seven others—Florida, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California— where the teaching of cursive is now either required by law or has been adopted by the State Board of Education to supplement the Common Core standards.
These standards are part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Federal initiative that specifies learning outcomes and rewards states that test students for achievement of these outcomes. The standards were written by a group of governors, state education leaders and other experts. They do not include the teaching of handwriting.
The state of Indiana, one of the first of forty-five states to adopt the standards, has just withdrawn from Common Core. Legislation signed by the governor Monday, March 24, requires the Board of Education to create its own goals by July 1. It will be interesting to learn whether those goals include the teaching of handwriting and whether other states follow Indiana’s lead in dumping Common Core in favor of locally controlled education.
WHAT THE HANDWRITING DEBATE IS ABOUT
Since Common Core does not specify cursive writing as a goal, many schools have stopped teaching handwriting past the second grade. Those who are in favor of dropping the teaching of “cursive” believe that manuscript printing should be taught in grades 1 and 2, but do not see the point of continuing instruction and practice of handwriting beginning in grade 3 because in the digital age, writing by hand is seldom necessary and when it is necessary, the printing learned in first and second grade will do. Classroom time should be used in teaching keyboarding,
Seriously! That seems to be their argument: that proficiency in writing rapidly and legibly by hand be dropped as a pedagogical goal at age 8. They apparently believe that no further instruction or practice or effort to acquire a controlled hand is necessary after age 8, when neural connections are still fragile. Age 8!
THE QUESTION WE SHOULD BE ASKING
“Should we be teaching handwriting—of any kind—past the second grade”? Let’s just call it handwriting or longhand. Whether it is writing with loops or no loops, written vertically or slanted, with every letter joined or just some letters joined really makes no difference. What we need to ask is this question: Are there benefits to learning and practicing writing by hand as opposed to keyboarding, and in practicing that skill throughout one’s academic career?
THE ANSWER IS YES!
Strangely, the most potent argument in favor of offering instruction and requiring the practice of handwriting throughout one’s academic career is very seldom offered.
It has to do with the relation of the hand to the brain. The feedback we get from forming the shapes of letters with our hand and focusing on the tip of the pen is quite different from the percussive strokes we make when typing on a keyboard, where the letters come ready made, where there is no distinction from the demands made in forming one letter vs. another, and the focus constantly shifts from the keyboard to the screen.
Neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay of the University of Marseille and Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger (Norway) have examined a wealth of research that deals with the significance of the differences between typing and writing by hand.(If you wish to read the article by Velay and Mangen summarizing the specific studies, here’s the link.)
A growing body of evidence in various scientific fields shows that the way we move our body (our hand, for example) and engage our senses (visual, tactile, kinesthetic, sound) plays an important role in learning and cognitive development.
In discussing how we teach writing, it is important to take this concept of “embodied cognition” into account. We generally tend to overemphasize the visual and ignore what is known as “haptics,” the way we learn and communicate by touch.
Different parts of the brain light up on an MRI when writing by hand and when typing. Some of these studies suggest that the challenge of learning to form letters by hand results in more fluency in speaking and reading as well.
Also the experience many of us have of being better able to memorize material if we write it down by hand is born out by the research.
When writing on a keyboard, attention oscillates between the screen and the keyboard and we constantly interrupt our thoughts to correct what we have written. When writing by hand, what one researcher has dubbed a “kinetic melody” is eventually achieved, when we no longer need to attend to letter formation and the writing seems to flow as the words pass through the hand. When this is achieved, we seldom stop to make corrections, there is an uninterrupted connection of our thoughts, and creativity is facilitated.
Evidence suggests that writing by hand facilitates fluency in reading and speaking, ability to memorize and to think creatively. But it is not necessary to abandon the teaching of keyboarding in favor of handwriting. Children can and should learn to do both. For a century and a half millions of people learned to use the QWERTY keyboard and to write a legible hand as well. You would think that those who oppose the teaching of handwriting past second grade never heard of the typewriter.