Elegantly shaped cursive letters that all seem to glide effortlessly into one another on a page convey much more than the words they are forming. But as the world becomes more technologically driven, cursive style writing is being taught less, and many young people have trouble reading cursive, let alone writing in this style.
Brain imaging studies have shown that learning cursive activates parts of the brain that are not used when printing or keyboard typing. It is an important tool in cognitive development as the brain is required to combine elements of sensation, movement, and thinking while forming letters.
Think again if you thought writing was only about forming words on paper and style didn’t matter. There is an extensive body of scientific evidence to support keeping, or reintroducing, cursive to the curriculum, as learning this form of writing indeed does seem to make you smarter.
Does Cursive Writing Make Your Smarter?
Cursive writing often feels like a dying art that belongs to a more romantic era gone by. This writing style is time-consuming to teach, and with keyboards replacing pens and paper in many settings, it is being phased out as an ancient skill in some school districts.
But as the world speeds up, the ability of kids to learn stays the same, and it is becoming clear that the time and precision required while learning to write in cursive style primes the brain for optimal cognitive development. Learning is, therefore, not only about how fast one can get answers or thoughts onto a digital screen, but forming cursive text on paper effectively links physical motion, dexterity, artistic sense, and thought simultaneously.
Cursive is not just about creating letters on a page or clicking onto a keyboard. It requires the brain to solve a little puzzle on each individual letter in order to link it to the next. So at the same time, as a child’s developing brain wants to hurry forward, forming letters and painstakingly practicing cursive provides a solid platform for skills to be consolidated before taking the next step forward.
Neuroscience professor William Klemm is an outspoken advocate of reintroducing teaching cursive at a young age because of what he refers to as ‘functional specialization.’ Brain imaging studies have shown that multiple areas of the brain become active while learning cursive.
Practicing cursive writing forces the developing brain to integrate regions that control fine-motor skills along with sensory perception, hand-eye coordination, and thinking at the same time. While this might not sound remarkable, it is not so much the child’s ability to read and write cursive that holds value as the end result of the process of learning.
While learning and practicing to write in cursive style, a child’s brain is being unlocked. The multi-level skills required when learning cursive style writing prime developing minds to absorb other complex information when presented. The brain seems to become more agile and ready to embrace further learning.
Most people who learned to write in cursive can readily adapt to life on computer keyboards, but that is not so evident when turned around. Young people who never learned cursive struggle even to read letters that are joined together, let alone form them. This may be because their brains simply lack some of the flexibility that is a by-product of the early multitasking required by practicing cursive style writing.
There is mounting evidence that learning to write using only digital methods could be problematic. In fact, not learning to write cursive style may affect the brains’ ability to learn and recall information. A recent EEG –based study at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology concluded that although digital methods should not be excluded from the classroom, cursive handwriting helps the brain remember and learn better.
This view is echoed by University of Washington educational psychology professor Virginia Berninger, who adds that the ‘sequencing of strokes, engages the thinking part of the mind.’ Her research also goes on to show the integral connection between handwriting and learning. When a child learns to write, they can generate ideas more quickly and retain information.
However, learning cursive doesn’t have to be a one style fits all scenario for children. Digital proficiency is also vital as keyboard-related skills are all around them. However, those skills are often picked up naturally as a result of constant exposure to technology from an early age, whereas cursive writing requires practice and repetition to master.
While patiently, and often painstakingly, learning to form the elegantly shaped cursive letters, a child’s mind needs to focus on much more than just making random marks on paper. The movement and precision required to produce cursive writing are demanding, and besides what is being produced on the paper, the child’s mind needs to do several things simultaneously.
The complex thought processes involved in learning to write in cursive style include:
- Sorting the information to decode how each letter will need to link to the next
- Spacing each stroke appropriately relative to the other strokes
- Using the correct size
- Developing a slant that flows easily
- Forming the correct detail of each letter so the writing is readable
Interestingly, it is not only in the learning stages that cursive seems to have benefits in cognitive ability. Professor Berninger’s research has also shown that in a sample of children in grades 2, 4, and 6, those writing by hand could produce words faster and express more ideas than children using a keyboard.
In other words, kids who were writing by hand showed greater creativity and were able to get their ideas onto paper more effectively than those tapping away on computer keyboards.
This brings the research field known as ‘haptics‘ into play. This interesting concept focuses on perceptions of touch, hand movements, and cognition and how they relate to one another—writing by hand trains the brain to integrate all these processes. Haptic feedback is the beneficial stimulus received by the brain from the fingers while getting feedback from the sense of touch and pressure.
From the evidence, cursive writing does indeed make you smarter, but let’s go through some of the specific reasons why this is so.
Cursive Writing Allows Your Thoughts To Flow
There is the notion that joined-up writing also leads to joined-up thinking, which is a good thing. Learning to write in cursive may be painstaking, but once it has been completely mastered, words, thoughts, and ideas can flow onto paper much faster than when writing in block letters or tapping on a keyboard.
This uninterrupted writing style allows the writer to connect things – not only physically connecting the letters on the page, but it connects thoughts and understanding to a much greater extent than when they are typed.
Cursive Writers Are Better Spellers
Studies have found that students in elementary school who learn cursive tend to be better spellers than those printing in block letters. The reason for this may be because these children have a better concept of how letters fit together to form words which in turn results in a heightened ability to process language.
Cursive Helps You Remember Information
Notetakers using cursive style writing have been shown to have better recall of information than those who are typing. This is because hand writing information isn’t simply transcribing precisely what you hear in a mechanical format, which happens when typing.
Handwriting requires the writer to carefully mentally sift through information and select what needs to be written down. This requires a high level of brain engagement which translates into better recall. So next time you are making a grocery list, be sure to write it down in cursive – if you forget the list, you will probably still recall most of the items.
Cursive Style Can Make You A Better Writer
Researchers have realized that children that learned to write in cursive were more likely to order words and sentences in more complex structures. So, in addition to just being able to form words more efficiently, they showed a heightened ability to write more engaging essays and put their thoughts on paper in a more meaningful manner.
Cursive Writers Are More Likely To Focus On Content
Once you become fluent in cursive, high-speed transmission is possible between thought and action. This can speed things up and help a lot when taking tests or writing creative essays because thoughts and ideas can quickly be transferred to paper without delay.
This view is supported by a study done by the College Board that found that students doing the essay portion of the SAT exam tended to score higher than those writing in block letters. Experts believe this is because they were able to concentrate their focus more on the content of the submissions rather than the actual formation of each letter to form words.
Cursive Writing Could Make You Smarter
A study published in the journal Academic Therapy clearly showed that first graders who learned to write in cursive consistently received higher scores in reading and spelling than groups who had only learned to print. This is consistent with the notion that learning to write cursive engages more parts of the brain and encourages cognitive development more than writing individual block letters.
Why Is Cursive Writing Style In Decline?
One of the first strikes to the art of cursive writing was the invention of ballpoint pens. Ballpoints made writing quick, mobile, and virtually smudge-proof, so text could be scribbled on paper without laboriously forming each letter. Earlier pen types required careful penmanship and attention to detail to ensure that ink dried neatly on the page.
Next up came the move to digital technology. Phones, computer keyboards, and touch screens have almost entirely relegated the need to write text in a flowing, formal style on paper. Cursive has been described as a dying art, and some believe it is unnecessary to learn such a tedious skill that may not be useful in the future.
It is now becoming clear that cursive writing is less about the production of handwritten notes than about what children are absorbing as a by-product during the process of learning to write cursive. Well-documented and peer-reviewed studies consistently indicate that repeatedly combining precise physical movement with cognitive thinking activity improves the overall ability to learn and recall information.
For this reason, some States have reintroduced cursive handwriting classes in elementary schools. However, it may be a bit too little, too late in some cases. The hiccup in the system now is that very few teachers have formal training on how to teach cursive writing, which is trickling through to students.
What once was a standard requirement for most teachers skipped a generation, so many schools are struggling with a lack of cursive-trained teaching skills. Keyboard proficiency has quickly replaced cursive in many settings to the detriment of this writing style.
Despite the challenges, cursive may be making a comeback as educational psychologists like Prof Virginia Berninger of UW continue to highlight the critical role of learning cursive. Simultaneously engaging mind and fingers to produce a series of finely coordinated shapes that make sense trains the brain to focus, embrace new knowledge and retain information better.
Although cursive itself does not make you smarter, the outcome of learning to write in this style certainly does have significant benefits. Learning to write in a fluid motion, joining letters together to make sense, and replicating complex patterns uses more areas of the brain than simply typing information on a keyboard or writing block letters.
The art of writing cursive might have faded for a few generations as the digital era has overtaken it. However, more and more education experts and psychologists are coming out in favor of reintroducing cursive writing classes to kids at elementary school. Cognitive ability seems to be heightened by the combination of hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and thinking skills required by learning to write in cursive style.