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Off script
Should schools teach cursive? Absolutely

Date published: 11/28/2012

THE KEYBOARDING KIDS of today need to learn cursive about as much as they need to know how to milk a cow, right? As they would say, "Not."

A few years ago the best practices committee of the National Governors Association came up with "Common Core State Standards" for education designed to ensure that students across the country are grounded in the foundations of English language arts and mathematics. While the standards are optional (five of the 50 states, including Virginia, are holdouts, the commonwealth preferring its own SOLs), adoption was required to compete for federal Race to the Top education grants.

The standards gave cursive writing the boot in favor of time at the keyboard. After all, the stated mission of the standards is to teach skills that are "robust and relevant to the real world."

But there's good reason to believe that dropping longhand is a mistake, that students need both keyboarding and cursive, and that the laments which followed the decision to eliminate longhand are not emanating from Luddites ISO the 1950s, they're coming from scholars and scientists with good reason to protest.

Cursive (that's what we call it: the Brits like to use the term "joined writing," Aussies, "running writing," and New Zealanders, "linking") developed as a way to keep quill on parchment, making writing faster and more efficient.

Research is showing that learning handwriting improves the brain. Using functional MRIs, a study conducted by Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University, found that children who practiced handwriting had far more enhanced and "adultlike" neural activity than those who simply looked at letters. "For children, handwriting is extremely important. Not how well they do it, but that they do it," she told the Chicago Tribune. "Typing does not do the same thing."

Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, points out that constructing a letter by hand involves linking different strokes, which is different from pushing a key for a complete letter. Writing engages the thinking, language, and working memory portions of the brain. Elementary school-age kids who write by hand wrote more complete sentences and composed papers more quickly than did those who used a keyboard, she found.

Cursive, which can be taught in the context of art, develops small motor skills, is an aid to kids with dyslexia ("b" and "d" are differentiated), and, notes Judith Thurman in The New Yorker, "is essential to a visceral sense of the past, and an ability to examine the literature, correspondence, and history contained in original documents."

Ms. Thurman, as you may guess, is a biographer who spends much time in sorting through letters and papers, diaries and journals. But biographers and historians are not the only Americans who should know cursive. Shouldn't we all be able to read the Declaration of Independence? The Constitution? Our grandparents' letters?

Cursive, joined-writing, linking: Whatever its name, it should not be called "extinct." Removing longhand from the Core Standards and replacing it with keyboarding is simply shortsighted.