Cursive writing – better for the brain?!

How writing was once taught...did it improve content too?

How writing was once taught…did it improve content too? D’Nealian Script image: Andrew Buck, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cursive writing has come up in previous discussions.

I confessed to deteriorating penmanship and wondered if cursive will survive modern trends in education.  Brian Mann weighed in over at the In Box, saying  (paraphrasing here) “good riddance to a royal pain!” (That post generated many interesting responses too, from broad opinions to personal anecdotes.)

Reports of cursive’s demise are variously mourned or hailed. Would opinions shift if it turned out mastering cursive improved both your brain and the breadth/depth of one’s writing?

This New York Times article by Maria Konnikova (6/2) asked “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” According to some research, there’s something about the effort that goes into cursive writing that produces quantitatively different brain activity. And it may extend to compositional content as well.

It’s a detailed article, but here’s one part that makes me sit up and take notice:

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

How do you react to that? I imagine many don’t care at all, and that’s perfectly understandable.

For myself, I have to stop and wonder. My handwriting is bad. So is my spelling. I adore what computers have made possible in terms of taking the grunt work out of writing. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) I’m not giving that up, period. But what might I, might we, be losing along the way? (If anything.)

Maybe it’s all a tiny tempest in a teacup. People still write. Most of us use keyboards now. Big deal. Nothing’s changed except the activity got easier. But now I’m also curious. I want to know what All In readers can add to this, if they notice any differences.

There are still some authors who do their work in longhand. I always put that down to individual preference. (Sometimes those claims sound like egotistical affectation.) But maybe that actually does produces better writing, for those writers, at least.

It’s easy to make too much of studies. After all, I suppose when writing consisted of imprinting clay tablets with cuneiform that lit up different parts of the brain too. But this sort of adds to the topic of handwriting as a matter of both form and content. Which I for one, find slightly more interesting than mastering good penmanship just because polite people are supposed to have a neat hand.

Did you write differently before computers? Do you write differently now, if you use paper and pen instead of a keyboard? Do tell.

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3 Responses to “Cursive writing – better for the brain?!”

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  1. Ken Hall says:

    “Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns” and contends that; “When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.”

    If true, how does this study square it’s self with the rigorousness of the scientific approach which is to thoroughly and critically analyze the study at hand not necessarily to produce as many words and ideas as possible in a short space of time? Is it not a generalized axiom that MDs have horrendous handwriting? Last I knew most MDs likely have somewhat higher IQs than the population average, a condition I would surmise most folks would equate with a desirable statistic for a physician.

    As an engineering student back in the 60′s I developed the habit of printing my to be graded homework assignments, pop quizzes and tests so as to reduce the potential for misreading by the Profs TA, as did most if not all of my acquaintances. Humanities papers were routinely required to be typed (without the use of PC’s which were to arrive some 15 years in the future). I continue to print notes to this day but prefer to use the keyboard and actively shun the use of “smart” phones.

  2. There is another side effect to the demise of children being taught cursive that wasn’t mentioned: The first wave of these people are getting to college and can’t read their professors’ handwriting on the chalkboards!!

  3. Pete Klein says:

    At the very least, you should know how to write in cursive to sign a check.
    I fail to understand what is so difficult about writing in cursive. I seldom write in cursive simply because there is little need to do it. Should you be able to write in cursive? I believe the answer to that question is best answered with similar questions such as: Is it a good idea to learn how to play a musical instrument, study a foreign language or take any courses in any of the arts?
    If we reduce all studies to just what is “practical” and of use on a job, what is the point of 90% of what passes for an education?