Cursive may seem like an outdated skill. In fact, in 2010, The Common Core standards dropped it as a requirement to be taught in elementary schools. However, recent studies revealed that this “old-fashioned” form of handwriting may be more important than you think.
Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) published a study this year that found cursive handwriting helps the brain to learn and recall information better.
“The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on,” study author Audrey Van der Meer said. “Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sensory experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better.”
In the study, Van der Meer and her colleagues examined the brains of 12 children and 12 young adults while they wrote in cursive, typed on a keyboard, and drew visually presented words either using a digital pen and touch screen or a traditional pen and paper.
Using a high-density EEG monitor, they determined that cursive handwriting resulted in increased brain activity in the parietal and occipital areas of the brain. It also prepped the brain for learning by synchronizing brain waves in the theta rhythm range.
“Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity in these particular brain areas is important for memory and for the encoding of new information and, therefore, provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning,” the authors explained.
The difference between handwriting vs. typing
The authors continued to explain the significance of these results and the importance of handwriting over typing on a keyboard.
“It seems that keyboards and pens bring into play different underlying neurological processes. This may not be surprising since handwriting/drawing is a complex task that requires the integration of various skills,” they said. “Children, for example, take several years to master this precise skill. They have to learn how to hold the pen firmly while producing a different print for each letter. Operating a keyboard is something completely different since all one has to do is press the right key, and the typing movement is the same whatever the letter.”
This study was the second investigation into cursive writing conducted by Van der Meer and her colleagues. The first took place in 2017 when she examined the brain activity of 20 students.
Van der Meer wants schools to understand the importance of continuing to teach cursive handwriting, rather than relying solely on keyboards and technology.
“Some schools in Norway have become completely digital and skip handwriting training altogether. Finnish schools are even more digitized than in Norway. Very few schools offer any handwriting training at all,” Van der Mer said. “Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence.”
Van der Meer’s isn’t the only study that supports the importance of handwriting. Researchers Steve Graham and Tanya Santangelo found, through analyzing several studies, that learning handwriting will not only improve your physical handwriting but also will result in better quality compositions.
This is because, “low-level” skills such as handwriting, spelling, and grammar take up extra brainpower. When a student is already proficient in these skills, they have more brainpower to devote to “high-level” skills associated with good quality writing.
Neurologist William Klemm said this often leads to an overall improvement in academic performance.
“As a child learns to master academic challenges, self-confidence emerges and provides a drive to learn more because the child knows that achievement is possible,” he said.
He added that the neurological benefits of writing by hand only increase when writing in cursive.
“Cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation,” he said. “Learning cursive is an easy way for a child to discover important tactics for learning as well as the emotional benefit of being able to master a task.”
There are many other studies throughout the years that have shown the importance of handwriting when it comes to cognitive function, memory and actual learning. However, the authors of the 2020 study put it simply in their recommendation to keep cursive writing in schools:
“We conclude that because of the benefits of sensory-motor integration due to the larger involvement of the senses as well as fine and precisely controlled hand movements when writing by hand and when drawing, it is vital to maintain both activities in a learning environment to facilitate and optimize learning.”