Neuroscience Says: Teach Them Cursive! by Courtney

Many folks these days feel that teaching children to write by hand is, at best, an afterthought. Typing has a higher priority. In fact, in my state students are supposed to be fluent typists by third grade. Many, if not most, public school districts now leave teaching handwriting to preschools, as part of the continuing shift of grade-level expectations downward. Students receive almost no handwriting instruction after learning to write the alphabet.

But, there are numerous reasons why this is a Bad Idea.

Cursive handwriting promotes literacy. Specifically, handwriting evokes a sophisticated reading “circuit” in the brain. The process of handwriting requires the brain to exercise literacy, whereas typing and “drawing” letters does not. (James & Engelhardt, 2012) For the last 40 years, some researchers have promoted teaching cursive from the beginning for just this reason. (Early (1976) as paraphrased in Montgomery, 2012)

Cursive handwriting promotes spelling. Students actually learn to spell better from the process of handwriting, as opposed to typing. (Berninger, 2012) For the last 40 years, researchers have advocated that students learn to write fluently in cursive because “each word or syllable consists of one continuous line where all the elements flow together … Handwriting, therefore, supports spelling and this contributes to literacy development.” (Montgomery, 2012).

Handwriting promotes writing. Berninger also says that children write more words, faster, with more ideas when writing by hand than with a keyboard. (Berninger, 2012)

Handwriting promotes content learning. Many studies have noted the poor retention by students when taking notes on laptops as opposed to longhand, but focused on the temptation to distraction.  But, when a series of studies focused on that exact issue, they found that typing allows students to space out, rather than have to think about their learning while writing. (Oppenheimer & Mueller, 2014)

Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the Collège de France in Paris, says, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain, and it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.” (Dehaene, 2014).

Cursive handwriting helps students with learning exceptionalities. “What has been known for many decades is that visual, auditory and articulatory elements must be firmly cemented in writing (Stillman, 1940, Schonell 1942).” (as paraphrased in Montgomery, 2012) Dyslexia programs have centered around cursive handwriting for the last 65 years because it works! (Montgomery, 2012). Cursive helps students with dysgraphia who would otherwise be “lost” on the page as soon as they lift their pencil from the paper. (Montgomery, 2012)  Furthermore, this extends to helping students with working memory — those who use handwriting have greater working memory activation. (Berninger, 2012)

Cursive handwriting promotes academic success. Montgomery notes that in upper-level courses, a student’s writing speed influences how well a student does in class because it affects how fast they can take notes and write essay examinations. She notes that because cursive writing is faster than printing (Ziviano & Watson-Will, 1998), it contributes to academic success. (Montgomery, 2012).

Increases in literacy, spelling, content learning, writing, and academic success for students with and without learning exceptionalities change the real question to “Why aren’t we teaching cursive?”



Berninger, V. (2012). Evidence-Based, Developmentally Appropriate Writing Skills K-5: Teaching the Orthographyic Loop of Working Memory to Write Letters So Developing Writers Can Spell Words and Express Ideas. Handwriting in the 21st Century: An Educational Summit. Washington, D.C.

Dehaene, S. (2014, June 2). Neuroscientist. (T. N. Times, Interviewer)

James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012, December). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, pp. 32-42. doi:10.1016/j.tine.2012.08.001

Montgomery, D. (2012). The Contribution of Handwriting and Spelling Remediation to Overcoming Dyslexia. In T. N. Fern-Pollak, Dyslexia – A Comprehensive and International Approach.

Oppenheimer, D. M., & Mueller, P. A. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science.

Ziviano, J., & Watson-Will, A. (1998). Writing speed and legibility of 7-14 year old school students using modern cursive script. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 59-64.


Courtney Ostaff is a relatively recent, accidental homeschooler of the secular, classical persuasion. Courtney has been teaching online (mostly community college algebra) since 2000, while working towards a ridiculous number of college credits for teaching certifications in general science, social studies, and visual impairments. Along the way, she’s done substitute teaching, face-to-face college adjuncting, technical writing, web design, public relations, data analysis, teaching in a public school, homeschool portfolio evaluations, providing vision education services for Birth To Three, and a whole host of “other duties as assigned.” In her spare time she enjoys reading, photography, cooking, sewing clothes, and other various domestic arts. She lives in the middle of the Appalachian mountains on the east coast of the USA with her husband, her two children, and her mother. Her family’s menagerie currently consists of a dog, assorted lizards, assorted cichlid fish, and assorted cats.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s