COMMON CORE STANDARDS AND UNCOMMON CURSIVE
How Eliminating Cursive and Replacing it with Keyboarding May Be Changing the Brain and the Learning Process
The Common Core Standards for education are beginning to be rolled out in schools across the country. Many people are unaware that the Language Arts section of the Common Core standards has omitted cursive handwriting as a subject that must be taught. As it is not included in the Common Core Standards, cursive handwriting is relegated to a “as we have time” or “if we chose to teach it” position in the classroom. While many of the public schools have dropped it most of the private schools continue to teach it.
The reduction in instruction time for cursive handwriting has slowly and subtlety taken place. Sometime in the 1980’s cursive handwriting began to receive less and less classroom instruction. It changed from the excessive two hours a day in the forties and fifties to the current fifteen minutes two or three times a week. Schools often start teaching cursive at the end of second grade and little instruction extends after the third grade.
Since cursive isn’t stressed after third grade students are not given enough practice to make cursive writing a habit. As a result many kids educated in the last two decades cannot write in, cannot read, or even sign their name in cursive instead they use block printing. It’s interesting to note that the decline in cursive handwriting has paralleled the decades of decline in reading scores.
The need to learn keyboarding skills is obvious. However, the need to learn how to write in cursive, while less obvious, is no less important. Little regard has been given to the interrelationships of handwriting development and reading, spelling and composition. The practice of handwriting and keyboarding can change how children learn and how their brains develop. Neuroscience researchers are trying to understand why units of language are affected differently when hands write by pen and by keyboard.
Thanks to the discovery of neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity or brain malleability, we now know that groups of neurons in the brain create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill, learn new things or memorize new information. Changes in neural connections create long lasting functional changes in the brain. It is incalculably important to know how these two fundamental skills, keyboarding and cursive writing, affect the brain and the learning process. In education as in medicine the creed should be “first do no harm.”
Many neuroscientists are examining and have published studies on cursive handwriting’s effect on pathways in the brain, particularly with young learners. We don’t yet know how changing from cursive to mostly keyboarding is affecting young learners brains but evidence is mounting that indicates that caution must be taken before discarding cursive handwriting from our nation’s primary grade curriculum. A list of scientists and a synopsis of their studies and their expert opinions are presented here for perusal.
- Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle studies normal writing development and writing disabilities. She asserts that handwriting has a value beyond its basic utilitarian one. She says the physical process of making letters by hand more powerfully embeds written-language-making skills in children’s brains than pressing keys do. Her study using fourth and sixth-graders revealed that students wrote more complete sentences when they use a pen. Her studies have also shown that forming letters by hand may engage out thinking brains differently than pressing down on a key.
- Karan Harman-James. Assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University conducted research using handwriting and keyboarding and MRI scans of children’s brains. Her research conducted in 2012 revealed that in the children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and “adult like” than in those who had simply looked at a the letter. She said that, “It seems that there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two dimensional things we see all the time.”
- R. Shadmehr and H. Holcomb of John Hopkins University published a study in Science Magazine showing that their subject’s brains actually changed in reaction to physical instruction such as cursive handwriting lessons. The researcher’s provided PET scans as evidence of these changes in brain structure. Further, they also demonstrated that these changes resulted in “an almost immediate improvement in fluency”, which led to later development of neural pathways. As a result of practicing motor skills, the researchers found that knowledge becomes more stable.
- William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D a professor of Neuroscience at Texas A & M University, wrote an article which appeared in Psychology Today: What Cursive Handwriting Does for Your Brain. His article, Cursive Writing Makes Kids Smarter was published on March 14, 2013 in Memory Medic. Dr. Klemm says that scientists are discovering that learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development, particularly in training the brain to learn “functional specialization,” that is capacity for optimal efficiency. In the case of learning cursive writing, the brain develops functional specialization that integrates sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of the brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice. He says there is spill- over benefit for thinking skills used in reading and writing. And, “cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation.”
Clearly these kind of experiments need to continue, increase, and be designed to provide the hard data required for conclusive results. However, it is prudent to examine expert findings rather than acting on assumptions when making changes to curriculum. It is especially important when the changes involve removing long standing cornerstones in education, such as cursive handwriting lessons.
Two renowned neuroscientists have authored books that reference cursive handwriting and the learning process.
Dr. Frank R. Wilson, a leading neurologist, published a remarkable book which was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). He describes in detail the pivotal role of hand movements in particular in the development of thinking and language capacities and in the developing of deep feelings of confidence and interest in the world- all-together, which he calls, “the prerequisites for the emergence of the capable and caring individual.” He explains that although the repetitive drills that are necessary for cursive handwriting lessons seem outdated, such physical instruction will help students to succeed. He says, “You can’t separate what’s in the mind from what’s in the body and that teachers should not try to “educate the mind by itself or much of the knowledge will be poorly processed and inadequately learned.”
Psychiatrist and neuroplasticity expert Dr. Norman Doidge authored the bestseller book, The Brain That Changes Itself (Published in Penguin Books 2007). In his book he describes specific cases of people with different brain anomalies who have been helped by neuroscience programs developed to improve their functionality. He discusses remarkable studies with various learning disabilities which may renovate the way educational problems are addressed. He also says that Neuroplasticity isn’t all good, news. “Once a particular plastic change occurs in the brain and becomes well established, it can prevent other changes from occurring. It is by understanding both the positive and the negative effects of plasticity that we can understand the extent of human possibilities.”
An interview with Dr. Doidge conducted 09/09/2008, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with Kerry O’Brien (www.positscience.com/news/kerry-obrien-speaks-norman-doidge) provides a fascinating discussion and remarkable insight regarding the value of cursive handwriting lessons in this excerpt from the transcript.
KERRY O’BRIEN: “You write that humans instinctively were on the right track in the age of rote learning in education and you cite Abraham Lincoln’s skill as an orator as an example. Can you elaborate?”
NORMAN DOIDGE: “Sure. In the ’60s, there were things that were part of a kind of classical education that people did away with ’cause they thought that they were irrelevant like an almost fanatical attention to elocution and handwriting, or memorizing long poems. But, it now turns out that what these activities did is they exercised very important parts of the brain that allow you to think in long sentences, have deep internal monologues and a certain amount of grace in all kinds of expression. And probably a lot of damage was done by doing away with these exercises that were there for good reasons we didn’t understand.”
Few would argue that “deep internal monologues, memorizing, and grace in all forms of expression” are becoming lost or at least are rapidly on the decline. For example consider texting: “lol” and “mbff”, short cuts for laugh out loud and my best friend forever. Texting has created a new language which is rather reminiscent of primitive forms of written communication.
It is equally important to understand how keyboarding effects the brain and the learning process, especially since it is ubiquitous and rapidly increasing, changing and expanding.
While acknowledging that a scarcity of data makes it impossible to know what is going for sure, a few prominent neuroscientists are suggesting cautiousness about the possible long term consequences of technology overload. Among them is Dana Alliance member Jordan Grafman Ph.D, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. He says, “In general, technology can be good for children’s cognitive development if it is used judiciously. But if it is used in a non–judicious fashion, it will shape the brain in what I think will actually be a negative way.” Dr. Grafman says the problem is that judicious thinking is among the frontal-lobe skills that are still developing way past the teenage years. In the meantime, the pull of technology is capturing kids at an ever earlier age, when they are generally not able to step back and decide what’s appropriate or necessary, or how much is too much. The outcome, Graham fears, will be a generation marked by “laziness of thinking.” Dana Foundation Brain Development in a Hyper-Tech World
In an interview with Scholastic Early Childhood Today, Using Technology In The Early Childhood Classroom, Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy in Houston said, “Modern Technologies are very powerful because they rely on one of the most powerful genetic biases we have – the preference for visually presented information.” Dr. Perry said the problem with this is that many modern technologies are very passive. “Because of this, they do not provide children with the quality of crucial emotional, social, cognitive, or physical experiences they require when they are young. The developing child requires the right combination of these experiences at the right times in order to develop optimally.”
On the other hand he said there are many positive qualities in modern technologies. “The technologies that benefit young children the greatest are those that are interactive and allow children to develop their curiosity and problem-solving and independent thinking skills. The key to making technologies healthy is to make sure that we use them to enhance or even expand our social interactions and our view of the world as opposed to using them to isolate and create an artificial world”
The creators of the Common Core Standards may have inadvertently left cursive handwriting off the list of requirements or it may have been assumed that it was simply no longer necessary to teach it in our high tech world. If research was conducted to determine what would be gained or lost in the learning process with this change there are no published studies available to indicate their findings.
The State of North Carolina has put cursive handwriting lessons back into their curriculum along with the memorization of multiplication tables. In fact, to date, seven states have reinstated handwriting lessons into their curriculum.
Cursive handwriting lessons are not prohibited but because they are not included in the Common Core Standards they are relegated to the not necessary category in education. At present there is no factual evidence to indicate that it is not necessary to learn to write in cursive and no factual evidence to indicate that keyboarding is more beneficial to the learning process. Children need to learn keyboarding and how to write in cursive. It should not be one or the other but both.
Is your child being taught how to write in cursive? If you believe it is important to retain cursive handwriting in the classroom share your opinion and initiate a discussion with your child’s teacher, school administrators or even your legislators.
Knowing how the skills children learn and use effect their learning process is just as important to understand as what they learn.
Linda S. Spencer, CGA, MS