Teaching cursive and handwriting

My handwriting is awful. Just awful. I signed some forms at the doctor’s office last week, and the nurse looked at my signature and commented that I “should’ve been a doctor.” I guess the cursive writing instruction I got back in elementary school just did not stick, as I often, when not writing on the computer, write in block letters or my own odd mix of bad cursive and block. Blursive, I guess. Which sounds sort of how it looks.

A friend and father of one of my son’s classmates asked me the other day, “Just why do schools continue to teach cursive writing, given that writing on computers is what people will do in the real world?” It’s a fair question, even more so with the advent of the Common Core State Standards and the pushing of keyboarding and other tech-based literacy skills. This blog at Hanover Research did a nice job summarizing the pros and cons to the teaching of cursive: On the con side, (1) it’s not a 21st century skill, per the Common Core, (2) it wastes valuable class time, and (3) kids can get by without cursive. On the pro side, (1) it helps develop motor skills, (2) it’s a useful back up skill, and (3) it connects writing to reading, such as assisting with word-order comprehension.

But what does the research say about the teaching of handwriting and its impact on students and learning? I found this piece in Ed Week, called Summit to Make a Case for Teaching Handwriting, which chronicled a Washington, DC summit that took place on January 23, 2012, National Handwriting Day, and was sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators and Zaner-Bloser, a company that produces a handwriting curriculum.

The white paper from the summit did a really nice job of convincing me that the teaching of handwriting is pretty important at the early grade levels, on a variety of levels. Here are a few statements from the paper:

  • “Research findings suggest that self-generated action, in the form of handwriting, is a crucial component in setting up brain systems for reading acquisition…handwriting appears to contribute to reading fluency by activating visual perception of letters and improving children’s accuracy and speed for recognizing letters.”
  • “Handwriting influences a student’s ability to write words, thereby improving the ability to transform ideas into written language by constructing multi-word sentences…teaching [writing] resulted in improved fluency and an increase in the quantity of students’ writing.”
  • “In addition to an evolving body of research that demonstrates a link between handwriting and brain functioning, experts suggest that handwriting lightens a student’s cognitive load. With consistent handwriting practice, the processes involved become less demanding and more automatic, enabling students to devote a higher amount of neurological resources to critical thinking and thought
    organization.”

But I also wondered: Did the above also apply to keyboarding? That is: Can the literacy connections attributed to the teaching of handwriting also emerge from the teaching of keyboarding?

In short, some. Kids learn to read, kids learn to write, and keyboarding can be a great tool for accelerating that writing. Studies have found a positive correlation between word processing and the quality, quantity, and positive attitude toward writing. The researcher James Kulik reports a positive correlation, for example, between writing skill and use of word processing prompts. (See his paper, Effects of Using Instructional Technology in Elementary and Secondary Schools: What Controlled Evaluation Studies Say.) And while she was writing about keyboarding for students with “non-verbal and visual-spatial learning strengths,” Elspeth Sladden stated that, “Becoming confident and competent at using…computer skills builds self-esteem. It also aids organization and work study skills, as the computer permits verbal and linear information to be displayed in graphic mode,” qualities that can benefit all learners.

But it seems that starting keyboarding at the right time is critical. John McIlvain and Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain write that keyboarding “is not to be confused with writing. The word processor is a tool to aid in the writing process by making it faster, more accurate (with spell and grammar check), more editable, and more easily distributed (perhaps its biggest asset)…In moving from the concrete to the associative in 9-11 year old spurt of intellectual growth, students are beginning to make associative connections…At this stage, keyboarding has a place in their development. One of its foci should be increasingly upon creating meaning at the keyboard,” with the creation of authentic texts.

So, yes: Teach kids to write, obviously, and even teach them cursive. There’s a lot of important development stuff that happens when they pick up a pencil and put it to paper. And when they’re developmentally ready, teach them keyboarding, to aid fluency, efficiency, confidence, self-esteem – and to prepare students for a world that demands that they use a keyboard.

I got the above image here.

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3 Responses to Teaching cursive and handwriting

  1. Bob Scribner says:

    As a Middle school teacher, I find very few students writing regularly in cursive. Last year I had 137 students and only 4-5 of them wrote in cursive. Actually as a sort of experiment, to see how many of them could remember how to write in cursive, another teacher and I had students complete two short homework assignments in cursive. We had to hand out the sheet with examples of the letters, but for the most part, they could do it.

    I feel that writing in cursive helps students to communicate, both on the writing side as well as in the reading. A few years back, The NY Times had an article stating that students who wrote in cursive scored an average 15% higher on the written portion of the SAT than those who did not write in cursive. Completely anecdotally I feel that students who write in cursive have fewer incomplete thoughts or sentence fragments.

    Students will need to be able to read all different types of handwriting in their lives, and learning how to write in cursive helps in this regard. When I write on the board in cursive, students complain that they cannot understand it (and my cursive is quite clear). I need to add that they do not try, and when we go through it together, they are capable. I guess that they are just used to everything being literally spelled out for them.

    For a little more of my two cents, every year I have parents who want their children to be able to compose any written response on a computer. If possible I comply, and when there is an IEP accommodation I make sure that the student has that option if he or she chooses. But for those without the accommodation, am I doing a disservice in allowing the child to not exert the effort to improve their handwritten communication? Now these students are not writing in cursive anyway, but perhaps if they were, their handwriting would improve.

  2. Michaela says:

    I really enjoyed this post. As a homeschooling mom, I had the choice of how to go about teaching handwriting. I’m glad to see that Zaner-Bloser made its way into your post; my children and I are huge fans of the handwriting program.

    Bob, your insight on the value of cursive is really interesting. Thinking about it, what you’ve said about having fewer incomplete thoughts or sentence fragments when writing in cursive really makes sense to me. Also, you bring up that students/(anyone) “need to be able to read all different types of handwriting.” I remember being younger and being able to read my grandmother’s cards and such with a lot of pride that I knew how to “decode” this fancy writing. My mom was a fan of calligraphy as well so I was very familiar with handwriting with flourish!

    I think all students should have the opportunity to learn to write in cursive, even if they don’t think they can master it, I do believe it has educational value.

  3. Tim Frewing says:

    I read that one particular stage of male fetal development releases a surge of testosterone through the brain, and that event damages fine motor control (to differing degrees) in human males. Since females do not experience this, their capacity for fine motor control is not compromised in the same way.

    It’s not your fault, man. You couldn’t help it if you were such a manly fetus.

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