Editorial: Write On: Cursive Good for Developing Brains

Conventional wisdom has it that the handwriting is on the wall for cursive script. And, indeed, it probably is doomed, given the ascendancy of digital communication. But if the keyboard ultimately proves mightier than the pen, something more than a mere cultural artifact will have been lost.

As The New York Times reported recently, new research suggests that strong links exist between handwriting and mental development in children. It appears that writing by hand stimulates neural pathways in such a fashion that learning is made easier. In fact, children who first learn to write by hand not only learn to read more quickly but also retain information better and are better able to generate ideas, according to the Times.

Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington psychologist, conducted a study following children in grades 2 through 5 that demonstrated that cursive writing, keyboard typing and printing are each associated with distinct brain patterns that produce distinct results. When writing by hand, children not only produced more words more quickly, but also expressed more ideas.

Other psychologists have reported that in both research laboratories and classrooms, learning is improved when students take notes by hand instead of typing them on a keyboard. This research suggests that writing by hand requires students to reframe the material presented and that this improves their understanding and retention of it.

That does not mean, of course, that writing by hand is about to undergo a renaissance. The new Common Core standards, which most states have embraced, call for teaching legible handwriting in kindergarten and first grade. But the emphasis then shifts to the keyboard. And as staff writer Nicola Smith reported in January, while the teaching of cursive writing is hardly extinct in Upper Valley schools, teachers increasingly find it hard to cram it into the day. There are many other demands on instructional time, including preparation for assessment tests — some of which will require students to use computers.

But the research is consistent with our own long-held opinion that handwriting requires a certain intentionality in forming letters, and thus words and sentences, that leads to more coherent and elaborated thought. The keyboard attached to an electronic device provides no such benefit, and in fact, lends itself to a helter-skelter approach to composition.

There are many other reasons why it’s important that cursive writing continue to be taught and learned in school. Among them are that the documents of the past must remain intelligible to the readers of the future; that signatures will always be required; and that certain occasions continue to call for personal, handwritten expressions of congratulation, condolence, consolation and counsel.

But if, in fact, writing by hand facilitates the thought process, that’s the most powerful argument for its preservation. Even a nodding acquaintance with the Internet and social media makes clear that whatever blessings the digital revolution has wrought, thoughtful communication is not among them. So make it a point to write something by hand at least once a week — a letter, a diary entry, a petition to your spouse for redress of grievances. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.