August 13, 2020
By Eileen McManus

Cursive writing – it might not be something you think about or use every day, or even at all anymore. Especially nowadays when keyboards and speech to text software are prevalent, but it is still an integral part of our lives. The ability to use and read cursive to read postcards and letters from family and age-old documents is certainly a boon, but cursive has other benefits too. Once learned, like printing, you never quite forget it, even if you thought you had.

In the past, handwriting was considered an art form and often only the very elite and the clergy learned to do it with any degree of finesse. Monks and priests would travel and educate the children of royals and nobles in reading and writing. People would also send their children to become a monk or a nun to enable them to have an education. The style of writing that pupils learned even varied depending on if your teacher was Catholic or Protestant and the individuality that is present in handwriting today was non-existent. Pupils were taught to copy, and copy precisely, the writing of their tutor. Any individuality came in the form of wax seals, usually emblazoned with your personal or family crest.

Free-flowing ink, fountain and dip pens are all important tools in a calligrapher’s arsenal.  (EILEEN MCMANUS/Spoke News)

For centuries it was that way until more and more people were able to learn cursive writing. In the Renaissance period, after 1600, more styles of writing were developed and there were many schools teaching handwriting. In the Medieval period, from 500 CE to 1500 CE, good handwriting was considered a sign of good breeding. The better your handwriting, the higher up in society you were. From there, as technology snowballed towards the 21st century, handwriting started to become more individual and unique. According to “Handwriting in America: a Cultural History” by Tamara Plakins-Thornton, in America, until about the 1920s “a first grader would have been almost as likely to learn printing as to use a computer,” which is to say, not likely at all. This was because “when children learned to write they began with cursive,” rather than the system we have now that teaches printing first, typing second, and cursive not at all. This has perhaps created an obvious gap in student’s education – without learning cursive their letter and word recognition and spelling will begin to suffer.

The learning and use of cursive writing helps to form neural pathways for letter recognition and spatial awareness in your brain. When students learn to consistently space letters and words they are better at accounting for space, not just on paper, but in the rest of their lives as well. According to the Missouri Traumatic Brain Injury Implementation Partnership Project, the areas of the brain responsible for spatial and movement awareness in a developing brain are the same areas of the brain that react and evolve when cursive writing is used. This spatial awareness training carries over to other aspects of your life as well like parking and not bumping into things in hallways. Cursive also helps to form and strengthen the neural pathways for learning, retention and motor control both fine and gross.

In 2011 the New York Times published an article about the benefits of teaching cursive writing in schools. They asked Sandy Schefkind, a pediatric occupational therapist in Bethesda, Md., and pediatric coordinator for the American Occupational Therapy Association to weigh in on the issue. “It’s the dexterity, the fluidity, the right amount of pressure to put with pen and pencil on paper,” Schefkind said. As a young human, forming and maintaining the neural pathways for spatial awareness and motor control is important to the developing brain. By learning these skills at a young age, you increase the brain’s capacity for learning and memory as well as your ability to regulate the pressure you use when you put pen to paper.

Schefkind’s observation that cursive aids dexterity and helps students figure out how much pressure to apply to the paper carries very well into other aspects of your life. If you can’t regulate the amount of pressure you use when writing whenever you do anything approximating writing like using a touch screen, with or without a stylus, or type, you are apt to use too much pressure. If you use too much pressure you are going to rip the page, or destroy the keyboard or touch screen. This lack of pressure regulation could also affect driving skills and how much pressure is required to brake, hold and turn the steering wheel. Without this crucial skill learning to drive becomes that much harder.

The neural pathways formed by cursive writing can also help the brain to recover from a brain injury, neurosurgery, or stroke by reforming, rewiring and reinforcing damaged pathways. Neuro specialists, from occupational therapists to neurosurgeons like Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, are in agreement that handwriting helps repair the neural pathways and brain sections that can be damaged during a stroke, neurosurgery or even a concussion. How fine and gross motor skills are affected by such an injury depends on a couple of factors. Firstly, it depends on the individual. People can be affected by brain injuries differently. It also depends on the severity of the injury. For example, there are different ways a concussion can affect the brain depending on its severity. An injury might affect only motor ability, (fine, gross or both), or it might affect memory, generation of information, or speech, or some combination of these.

But the brain is remarkably resilient. With the right kind of therapy, like art or writing therapy, the brain can repair damaged neural pathways or bypass them entirely. The brain could rewire a whole section into another to bypass a section that’s too damaged to use. For example, if the frontal lobe is damaged, this may affect your organization skills. The brain can bypass the organizational centre of the brain, and wire that function into another section of the frontal lobe.

The effectiveness of this, however, depends a little on the injured person. The brain can only forge the primary connections to rework your organizational centre. This is an unconscious fix that the brain does automatically. It’s like wrecking your planner and getting a new one. The thing is, once the rewiring is complete you have to work to keep those connections active and strengthen them, so by actively ensuring that you are organized and using notebooks, calendars and the like to organize your life, your brain will catch up. Rewiring the organizational centre is only useful if you put in the work to use it, like buying a new planner. The planner itself is not enough to make you organized, you have to use it.

It’s the same overall process if the language and movement centres in the cerebellum and cerebral cortex are damaged by injury. Your brain rewires the sections it needs to function but in order to help it heal and strengthen those connections it needs a little help. This is where handwriting comes in. According to Del Maestro who is the William Feindel Professor Emeritus in Neuro-Oncology at McGill University in Montreal, Que., “fine motor skills are high brain functions” which means that using them stimulates many sections of the brain at once. “Doing cursive writing probably activates multiple areas of the brain,” Del Maestro says, as you have to see the letters, form the words and write them down.

This process stimulates not only the language centres in the cerebellum but also the memory centres in the temporal lobe, the vision centres in the occipital lobe and the parietal lobe, forming new connections and helping you learn. Without the process of learning cursive your brain doesn’t make the same connections, especially in your language and memory centres. This may lead to language, learning, writing and even memory problems down the line.

But children are no longer learning cursive writing in school. With the rise of the computer the focus has shifted from teaching cursive to teaching keyboarding. Around 2015 Ontario phased cursive out of the elementary school curriculum officially, postulating that because computers are so ubiquitous cursive is now an obsolete skill that has no bearing on pupils’ futures. Instead of being mandated to use class time to teach this “obsolete” skill, teachers now have the choice of whether or not to teach cursive writing and many choose not to. Thus, many students leave school without this skill. Some Montessori schools still teach cursive, according to a 2015 Hamilton Spectator article. This is because children naturally use loops and swirls to attempt beginning to write and cursive is a natural extension of this impulse. “It also enhances learning about language, as it teaches children that words and sounds are a cohesive unit” according to Tony Evans, director and founder of the Dundas Valley Montessori School. Evans said “children who write in cursive, as opposed to typing, when they look at what they write, it turns out that the depth, breadth, and quality of the writing is significantly better.”

This phenomenon isn’t confined to elementary school either. According to a 2013 New York Times article by Suzanne Baruch Asherson, the learning and use of cursive writing leads to increased reading comprehension and class participation, which lines up with the areas of the brain that are positively affected by cursive writing. The American College Board did a study and found that students who used cursive writing for the written portions of their SAT’s scored higher on average than those who typed. They postulate that it enables the students to focus more on what they’re writing than the word count.

“Regardless of the age we’re in or the technologies at our disposal, success is measured by thought formation and the speed and efficiency in which it is communicated. Because of this, students need a variety of technologies, including cursive writing, to succeed,” writes Asherson. Each different method we have for communicating our thoughts uses a different area of the brain. This allows us the most effective use of our brains we need to not only write, or note take, prolifically and quickly, but in a way that makes sense to us. There’s no use regurgitating the information that teachers and professors give us if we don’t understand it, so it’s better to rephrase it in a manner that makes it easy for us to remember and understand.

A 2014 study by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer makes the distinction between taking notes by hand and typing them. They postulate that the process of taking notes in cursive, or generative note-taking, is better for comprehension and studying than rote transcription. Generative note-taking is defined as “summarizing, paraphrasing and trimming content” before writing it down. When you read something or listen to a lecture, taking notes is an important part of the process to allow you to remember and study from it later. But the study found that taking notes by hand facilitated this better than typing as typing notes made students more prone to attempt rote transcription of the material as it’s presented, which does not in any way aid comprehension of the content.  Whereas summarizing and paraphrasing content as you write it out by hand allows you to think about it and write it down in a way that makes sense to you. They noticed that even when they specifically asked students not to attempt to transcribe the lecture, those who typed their notes wrote down as much as possible, as fast as possible and transcribed most of the lecture anyway. Whereas students who hand wrote their notes made no attempt at rote transcription and summarized and paraphrased more of the lecture. In addition, many professors note that laptops in lecture halls and classrooms can be a distraction because students can download the lesson and record the lecture and just browse the internet instead of taking notes.

The topic of computers versus handwritten notes is the subject of much debate and a lot of the available literature points to handwritten notes as the better choice. But, say Mueller and Oppenheimer, much of that literature predates widespread laptop use in the classroom so its accuracy is by no means absolute. This research posits two theories regarding note taking in the classroom or lecture hall. Encoding theory states that the very act of taking notes by hand is what helps retention and learning by triggering these vital processes in the brain. This can be backed up easily by noting which areas of the brain are triggered when taking notes by hand versus when typing. The external storage theory, however, suggests that it is not the act of note taking but the notes themselves which are the beneficial learning tool. This hypothesis theorizes that the simple act of reviewing typed or written notes is what aids information retention. Based on the way cursive versus typing affects the brain, the best course might be a mix of both approaches, handwritten notes and reviewing those notes.

As mentioned, cursive can also be an effective rehabilitation tool. When the brain is injured, through a concussion, stroke or brain surgery, your language centres and motor skills can be affected. Even if it has affected your gross motor skills, cursive handwriting exercises are an effective repetitive motion tool that can help the patient regain control over their body and help their brain to heal. If they don’t already have these skills in place, having learned them early on in life, it suddenly becomes a question of learning them. Learning a new skill, like handwriting, after a brain injury or stroke isn’t easy. It takes a level of concentration you might not have while your brain is recovering, so learning early on and ingraining it in your muscle memory can help you use it in an instance like this.

The key to learning is repetition. Relearning control over an already present skill set is easier than learning something new. Learning a new skill in the immediate aftermath of a brain injury is like trying to roller-skate for the first time with greased wheels, nearly impossible. It makes it too easy to give up on yourself when you feel like you’ve failed for not getting it right the first time. Dusting off a rusty skill set that you already possess is much easier than starting from scratch, especially when your brain feels like scrambled eggs.

Fifteen years ago, the grandmother of the author of this story had a stroke that affected her ability to write and move on one side. To help her regain her gross and fine motor skills her occupational therapist suggested that she do things with her hands and practice her handwriting. The idea behind using handwriting to strengthen and rewire areas of the brain after an injury is not new, in fact, it’s been around for decades and it has proven to be effective. This is because of all of the different areas of the brain that work together when you write in cursive. Typing and printing don’t have the same effect. But handwriting isn’t just good for forging and maintaining neural pathways.

Using handwriting to take notes in school or in college has already been proven effective at helping you get better marks and test scores because you think more about what you are writing then the word count of the document. But there are people who would argue that the whole point of moving on from cursive writing and moving everything to typing is to achieve what Anne Trubek, author of “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting” calls “cognitive automaticity” that is, the ability to write a lot and not think about the formation of each word. According to Trubek human history has been marching along toward the point we’re at now, where typing and committing your thoughts to the page is an automatic process. You don’t have to think about the formation of letters and words as you write on a physical page. You just tap a few keys and the words form. Soon you have a 25-page document.

Trubek, in an interview with CBC’s Carol Off in 2016, said, “That’s what we want for our kids to be able to achieve with writing, that is, they can make the letters without thinking about how to make the letters. That frees up their mind for the cognitive work of thinking about how to express their ideas.” But does learning to type from an early age really do that? Typing, much like handwriting, doesn’t start as an automatic process, it has to be learned, usually by copious practice.

To say handwriting slows us down by making us think about letter and word formation and should be done away with in favour of typing is like saying that typing slows us down and we should favour speech-to-text software instead. Neither handwriting nor typing is obsolete in the face of more evolved technology, they just enable us to express ourselves in a different manner by activating different areas of the brain.

Does depriving students of handwriting to thrust them into the computerized age really help our kids with their composition? It can; however, as noted by Sandy Schefkind in 2011, handwriting helps children learn, not just letter formation and word composition but also how to write without ripping the page. It teaches them hand dexterity, flexibility and hand-to-eye co-ordination that typing can’t teach them. Without handwriting, to effectively learn that dexterity and flexibility, students would have to learn another handicraft like knitting or crocheting in order to achieve similar, though not identical, results.

When you think of cursive writing what do you think of? Something your mother or grandmother used to write letters and recipes, something you slogged through learning in school and hated every minute of? Maybe.

Others thought it was something they would never have to use again with the rise of computers.

But there’s something to be said for stepping away from the technology, polishing off that cursive primer and slowing down your thought and writing process, even just for a couple of hours a week. And hand flexibility and dexterity aren’t solely the purview of the past.

With circuit boards getting smaller all the time dexterity and finger flexibility are very necessary weapons in an engineer’s arsenal. Being able to wire, solder and manipulate tiny circuit boards by hand becomes 4,000 per cent harder when your hands won’t do what you want them to. When you lose your dexterity, doing anything, not just engineering, becomes a chore. That’s why more and more engineers and people who work in the technology sector are stepping away from technology, even just for a couple of hours a week, and taking up a handicraft. Calligraphy, knitting and crocheting can improve your dexterity and make your hand steadier which, for people who work with their hands, is a must. It’s even being suggested that students in surgical fields take up calligraphy or another handicraft in order to make their fingers more dexterous and give them the hand-to-eye co-ordination they need to do intricate surgery.

 When handwriting falls by the wayside and all that is learned in school is typing and printing, more people, as adults, will turn to handicrafts in order to regain or gain some of the dexterity and fine-motor skills that they never truly learned as a child.

Cursive also comes in handy for a number of professions today that you might not think of like being a secretary or, even a journalist. Taking notes on your phone at press conferences is almost impossible and most journalists usually have a pad of paper and a pen for note-taking anyway. Dusting off the cursive ensures that we can take faster and more accurate research notes. It also comes in mighty handy when you’re writing your stories. Having copious, legible notes in a notebook ensures that you don’t have to flip back and forth between a recording, typed notes, or an online article constantly.

Handwriting in the modern age is a crucial discipline in the fight against the atrophy of your dexterity and flexibility as well as a way to connect with the past and connect with your brain. By learning handwriting you can more easily put thoughts to paper and expand your reading comprehension, vocabulary and memory. By taking a technological step back and using cursive writing for notes, you become better versed in how to take notes effectively and how to develop generative note taking skills which can help you phase out the typist’s tendency to rote copy or transcribe where they can. By learning to write fluently in cursive you’ll notice that grades improve, memory improves, summary and paraphrasing skills improve, and, most importantly, your gross-and-fine motor control improves, and that’s something that every human needs, no matter their profession.

The teaching of handwriting and calligraphy has evolved over time but sometimes the classics prevail. This Speedball lettering book has all sorts of different styles of calligraphy you can learn. (EILEEN MCMANUS/Spoke News)

Leave a Reply