We should start with a personal anecdote concerning the connection between brain research and cursive writing.
As an energetic third-grader, positive school experiences were far and few between, until I discovered cursive writing.
The event occurred when my teacher asked for a volunteer to demonstrate how to make a cursive capital B. When no one volunteered, I jumped at the opportunity. I had observed my father’s perfect B when he wrote his name ‘Bill,” his shortened version of William.
From this observation, I discovered he would employ a small s as his starting point to draw a perfect cursive capital B. Therefore, with some degree of confidence, I demonstrated on the classroom blackboard a perfect cursive capital B.
Years later, as a special education teacher, I re-employed a similar cursive B moment with learning handicapped and severely emotionally disturbed students at a state regional school for exceptional children.
At the beginning of each school day we practiced cursive writing for 10 to 15 minutes. I was not only hoping that they become proficient in cursive writing but I also thought cursive writing could raise their self-esteem, as had happened with me with my perfect capital B experience.
In fact, I discovered that cursive writing was an excellent kinesthetic exercise which grounded my students’ energies, many of which had severe behavioral problems.
Montessori used sandpaper letters to teach the alphabet to orphaned and/or abandoned children, attempting to connect the children’s lack of maternal touch by letting them use their fingers to stimulate their kinesthetic intelligence. Steiner incorporated calligraphy exercises into his Waldorf school curriculum to facilitate reading and writing.
Furthermore, a University of Chicago study demonstrated that students could combat test anxiety and improve test performance by writing about their worries immediately before tests (Journal Science, 2012).
Cursive writing has proved to even support higher SAT scores. That is, the College Board found that students who wrote in cursive for the essay portion of the SAT scored slightly higher than those who printed, which experts believe is because the speed and efficiency of writing in cursive allowed the students to focus on the cohesion of ideas in their essays through the mirror of the connected cursive stroke.
My cursive lessons attempted to have my students replicate the alphabet from a prescribed conventional cursive writing program called De Nealian. (There have been pluses and minuses about the De Nealian system versus other cursive writing programs such as the Palmer method, which suggests a smaller ending tail to the letters.) However, I was not about to trifle over an ending tail if I could successfully motivate these hard-to- teach students to develop their cursive abilities.
Also, I purchased a K – 6th De Nealian language arts cursive writing program, which allowed me to integrate cursive into my language curriculum. Directive arrows on cursive letters helped the children form their letters correctly. Before any cursive lesson, I had the students draw pretend letters in the air with their fingers while speaking the particular letter. I was trying to stimulate their kinesthetic, visual and auditory intelligences by using their bodies to physically feel, see, speak, hear and imagine invisible letters (*please see mirror neurons).
Beginning with what I like to call the magic c, the children would follow the book’s lessons. From the magic c they could transfer to a, p, d, q, o, etc.
After a few weeks of practicing the various letters, I had the students copy the day’s date on large 12 by 36-inch writing paper. The paper had horizontal lines across the page with broken lines across the middle. They would copy in cursive: Today is Monday, Sept. 6, 2013, on the long sheets of papers using the lines as markers for the upper and lower case letters.
Writing the dates gave me additional information about the moods and/or developmental abilities of my students. I could chronicle their cursive writing dates to illustrate the connection between behavior and academic work. On their good days, their cursive writing was organized and flowing, on days when they had behavior issues, the cursive was disorganized and disjointed.
Conversely, whenever the school needed to have a school announcement sent home they chose one of my students to write the letter due to their excellent cursive writing abilities. The opportunity to write letters for the school brought a beam of happiness and high self-esteem, very much like what I had experienced in third grade with the perfect B.
More importantly, after about six months, the students were showing one to two years academic growth in word attack, reading fluency and reading comprehension as defined by popular achievement tests.
In order to understand how and why cursive writing raised special education children’s self-esteem and/or linguistic abilities we need to look for clues with the child’s learning brain.
The cerebellum, a part of the brain located in the old brain, is directly associated with stimulating our kinesthetic intelligence.
Interestingly, at one time the cerebellum was considered responsible only for the development and management of gross motor skills, such as running, skipping etc. However, recent studies show that the cerebellum also acts to support limbic (emotional) functions such as attention, impulse control and cognitive processes located in the frontal lobe.
In addition, the cerebellum connects regions of the brain that perform mental and sensory tasks, which allow us to perform these skills automatically, without conscious attention to detail. This allows the conscious part of the brain the freedom to attend to other mental activities, thus enlarging the cognitive scope associated with learning and intelligence (Sousa, 2006).
Furthermore, Rand Nelson of Peterson Directed Handwriting, believes that when children are exposed to cursive handwriting, changes occur in their brains that allow a child to overcome motor challenges. He says, the act of physically gripping a pen or pencil and practicing the swirls, curls and connections of cursive handwriting activates parts of the brain that lead to increased language fluency. That is, cursive writing ability affords us the opportunity to naturally train these fine motor skills by taking advantage of a child’s inability to fully control his fingers. This means cursive writing acts as a building block rather than as a stressor, providing a less strenuous learning experience.
Moreover, cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing, typing or keyboarding.
Therefore, it is no wonder that some boys experience such positive effects when they participate in a cursive writing program. In other words, a serious advantage as to why girls are about nine months ahead of boys in their linguistic skills (reading, writing etc.) is because the corpus collusum, the middle strip that separates our left and right brain hemispheres is larger in girls than in boys, which allows for a girl’s brain to crosstalk.
Essentially, a boy’s linguistic skills are more concentrated on the right side of the brain or the spatial, non-verbal and/or visual side, which is why boys have difficulty sequencing linguistic exercises, a necessary requirement for most beginning readers.
Furthermore, the ability of working memory (reading) to transfer letters (phonemes) into words and then to long term memory (comprehension) can be seriously affected when a child lacks the ability to sequence letters and/or words. For example, the child first sees the word (visual cortex) and then sounds out the word (temporal lobe). Any delay with visual or auditory sequencing will affect the child’s ability to transfer learning (reading) to long-term memory. (Interestingly, reading will always be an unnatural act for some beginning readers because reading was not a requirement of our early ancestors’ survival (Sousa, 2006.)
Another important area associated with cursive writing and one that supports self-esteem building is when the limbic or emotional area of the child’s brain is engaged in a positive linguistic exercise.
Within the limbic systems is the thalamus, which serves as a filter for incoming information. The thalamus must decide whether the information or learning experience is non-threatening or threatening.
If it is non-threatening the child’s hippocampus, seat of emotional relationships, directs the learning experience to the higher or executive brain centers associated with long-term storage and comprehension. However, if the learning experience is threatening, the experience is directed to the amygdala and the child’s ability to transfer information from working memory (phonemes/ words etc.) to long- term storage is short-circuited. The threatening experience places the child in a fight or flight mode. The secretion of the chemical, cortisol, into the child’s brain, further intensifies the fight or flight response by short-circuiting the learning potential and intelligence. Lastly, since the amygdala in larger in boys than in girls, a boy’s reaction to learning could become overstressed which could explain why in most special education classes, boy/girl ratios are so slanted towards the boys, or about nine boys to two girls.
Shadmehr and Holcomb of Johns Hopkins University published a study in Science magazine showing that their subjects’ brains actually changed in reaction to physical instruction such as cursive handwriting lessons. The researchers provided PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans as evidence of these changes in brain structure. In addition, they also demonstrated that these changes resulted in an almost immediate improve in fluency, which led to later development of neural pathways. As a result of practicing these handwriting motor skills, the researchers found that acquired knowledge becomes more stable.
Dr. David Sortino, a psychologist and current Director of Educational Strategies, a private consulting company catering to teachers, parents, students. Dr. Sortino is also a primary provider for the FastForWord reading Program as well as trained in Neurofeedback.
To contact Dr. Sortino, e-mail davidsortino@comcast or 707-829-8315 or go to his blog: Santa Rosa Press Democrat – Dr. David Sortino.