Handwriting: Why Cursive?

By Robin Wilkins – Puriri Teacher, Primary

I am frequently asked, “Why cursive?” and in fact recently, was even asked why we teach handwriting at all, given the prevalence of computers in schools (did you know this question was first asked back in 1873, when the Remington typewriter was invented?).

Current articles and books focusing on the issue of handwriting address the difficulties of teaching cursive when following traditional education models, however this is not the approach used in a Montessori programme. Each environment – preschool, lower and upper primary and adolescent – is made up of materials, activities and methods that are carefully designed to meet the developmental needs of the child within that level’s three- year age-range.

When looking at writing, the manual preparation of the hand is interwoven with a child‘s need to express thoughts and feelings. We teach the cursive method beginning in preschool, as it corresponds to the physical and mental needs of the child at that stage. In ‘The Formation of Man’, Maria Montessori discusses the benefit of kinaesthetic preparation for writing, where she says, “The physical act of forming words on the page helps us to not only develop better handwriting, it also helps us to develop the neural networks that become memories and knowledge.” Cursive handwriting best mimics what the child does naturally. When a young child draws or acts out writing, he/she forms looping, connected shapes, not geometric, print-like shapes.

Much contemporary research evidence supports this. A study from the University of Washington found, “Forming a written word, letter-by-letter, leaves a stronger memory trace for written words than does a word, letter-by-letter, using a keyboard, particularly in developing writers” and interesting research out of the University of Toronto and Colombia University states that, “If cursive fades away, so will cognitive skills that only cursive handwriting builds. If children don’t learn those movements, their brains will develop in a different way that no one has really thought through. When a child types or prints, he produces a letter the same way each time. In cursive, however, each letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts symbol sequences into motor movements of the hand.” Practising the complex demands of cursive also builds fluency in language as studies confirm that characters learned through print or typing are recognised less accurately than those written in cursive. Another behavioural and developmental study says, ”When doing form drawings or writing in cursive, the right and left hemispheres are both active and working together. Print is a more abstract and advanced task that requires only the left hemisphere, often not developed enough for this task until 7-9 years.

As is backed up by modern scientific evidence, cursive still holds many advantages for the learning and development of our children.