There are several areas of education that can seem archaic to young people, relics of days gone by. Amidst these antiquities be the Dewey decimal system card catalog, sentence diagramming, learning Greek and Latin roots, and perhaps most of all, writing in cursive. Other than a robust study of card catalogs, I am strongly in favor of all of these things, but today we’ll talk about the immense value of just one: learning cursive.
I realize you’ve been told you need to learn to write well in cursive before, but sometimes the why can get lost, and there are always people out there with counter-arguments. Many schools simply don’t teach cursive any more.
But first, let me explain why I think it’s important. I didn’t come to this realization easily, and it wasn’t enforced in any of my schools. I switched to writing in print in about 5th grade and never looked back until I was in my 30s. So why did I change my mind? As a college instructor, I had a class with several poor spellers and did a fair amount of research in my efforts to help them. You may think they had dyslexia, and you’re probably right, but there are methods for helping poor spellers—even dyslexics—and believe it or not, one of the most important is teaching them to write in cursive. When I saw the research showing how important cursive is to our mental development, I went to a great deal of effort to improve my own handwriting as an adult.
When you print a word, you pick up the writing implement (pen hereafter) between every letter. Many teachers try to get spelling across by breaking words into syllables, but it rarely works. Research has shown that words should be treated as a whole. One letter leads to the next. In Spelling, Caught or Taught?, Margaret Peters wrote: “By writing one letter string correctly, the likely connection for the next letter string will be provoked.” This doesn’t happen when you print the same way it does when you write in cursive, or even when you type.
I’ve seen this principle in action through some of the errors I make typing. For instance, if I email my friend “Chris,” I sometimes accidentally type his name as “Christ” (in fact, I even did it writing this sentence into my notes and had to delete the “t”!). The reason is simple: One letter leads to the next, and I am so accustomed to typing the word “Christ” in Sabbath services and elsewhere that as I type C-h-r-i-s … my finger is already halfway to the “t” before my brain can catch up. The connections between the letters matter. Writing in print rather than cursive removes that connection and thus changes how you think as you write in a profoundly negative way.
Brain imaging studies reveal that your brain lights up in a more positive way when you write in cursive than when you write in print or type. Yet, I know there are objections that those who rejected cursive along the way have. Let’s address a few of them:
I have to type my papers on a computer anyway.
Yes, you do—but that doesn’t negate the need to write your thoughts down. If it did, we would start kindergartners on typing rather than writing—and the research shows they are better off writing by hand: “Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor at the University of Washington, reported her study of children in grades two, four and six that revealed they wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.”
Researchers at the University of Indiana: “… conducted brain scans on pre-literate 5-year olds before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced self-generated printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and ‘adult-like’ than in those who had simply looked at letters. The brain’s “reading circuit” of linked regions that are activated during reading was activated during hand writing, but not during typing.”
So yes, you need to learn to type too, but our brains benefit from writing things by hand. So you should!
Some say: My print writing is more legible than my cursive writing.
My piano teacher told me that every piece of music required a certain amount of time, and that until you had put that practice time in, you couldn’t play it.
Think about that in terms of not just writing cursive, but practicing it. When you’re writing in cursive, you aren’t necessarily making it better. Your print writing will always be more legible than your cursive until you have put in enough practice. This is also true for people who say their hand gets tired. Until you’ve practiced writing correctly enough, the result will be fatigue. It gets better with skill.
One particular complaint we hear a lot is that cursive is slow. This is a skill issue too. Children are often told to write carefully, and as a result, they slow down. One of the ironies is that they’ve discovered children who write carefully also write more swiftly. Slow writing demonstrates an uncertainty about letter formation.
If your cursive is slow, you’re defeating some of the benefits of writing in cursive—and it probably accounts for why your hand gets tired. Remember what we said about one letter leading to the next? If you’re going so slowly you can think about every letter, you may as well be picking the pen up between every letter as you did when printing.
Slow writing is the most significant indicator of children who have trouble with spelling. It is more important than poor verbal intelligence or poor visual perception of word form. Speed of writing is clearly basic to spelling progress.
Let’s use the word “immediately” as an example. Consider this sequence:
Learning the words in that order is structural, showing you the appropriate prefixes, and suffixes. Most could easily learn to spell “immediately” if they do it in that order. Now look at this:
im me di ate ly
You can see that studying structure is far more valuable than studying syllabification. That is why research shows that syllabification confuses kids who are trying to learn to spell—and why you should learn to write in cursive at a reasonable speed.
In some schools, having mastered your cursive was worthy of honor. In “Why Cursive Mattered,” Anne Quito wrote: “I was second in a class of 40 to graduate to a pen. I remember that it was our language teacher who announced it, somewhat out of the blue—interrupting class for an impromptu ceremony in my honor. She proclaimed, ‘Anne can now use the pen,’ beaming while my classmates applauded. It was epic. This was the day. I felt different—instantly taller, smarter, perhaps.
“I recall ceremoniously demoting my yellow No. 2 pencils to the second level of my tin case and moving up the blue Bic Cristal pen that I had secretly (and optimistically) stashed there for months. I could not wait to write notes to my friends with the self-assurance and permanence of ink.”
Perhaps you’ve secretly glanced over at a classmate’s beautiful handwriting and wish you could write with the “self-assurance and permanence of ink.” Maybe you looked at your principal’s handwriting, and it made you want to put your own Joel Hancock at the bottom of a document. Or perhaps you read this very article and are now moved to improve your penmanship. What next?
Now it’s time to do it with your might! (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Deciding to write better is just a first step. Take measurable action. If you really are starting at ground zero, a complete method, the Spencerian Copybook set, which includes six books, will run you a little under $25.
Another highly regarded, inexpensive book is The Lost Art of Handwriting: Rediscover the Beauty and Power of Penmanship by Brenna Jordan. It runs about $10.
There are free courses at suryascursive.com that provide both videos and worksheets. Some aspiring writers of things have printed historical letters and copied the strokes they saw until the beauty in the writing of our forefathers become natural in their own writing.
The important thing is that you set aside some amount of time daily—15 minutes would be great—and stick to it. Consistency is the key to improving any skill, and handwriting is a skill. Take the time to become excellent at handwriting now, and you really will reap benefits for it throughout the rest of your life.