A few years before I had children, I read John Holt’s book Learning All the Time. He talked about cursive, and how he had always been told that we teach cursive to children because it’s faster. So one day he decided to test this theory. He timed himself writing a paragraph in print, and then writing a paragraph in cursive.
And he was shocked to find that cursive was slower!
So he advocated that schools stop wasting time teaching cursive.
Well, I’m all for doing things efficiently, and I knew that, though I sometimes wrote in cursive by choice, my husband never did. In fact, although I would sometimes get cards from women in a beautiful script, I didn’t know any men who wrote in cursive.
So when I had my five sons, I didn’t bother teaching it. If a son asked to learn, I provided the workbooks, but didn’t require it.
In retrospect, I know that John Holt had only part of the picture. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made a different choice in my teaching.
Does Cursive Offer Any Benefits Besides Speedy Writing?
It turns out that cursive is not just useful as a faster method of writing, so though Holt’s point about relative speed may have been true for him, that is not the point of teaching cursive.
In fact, studies show that cursive offers two distinct advantages. First, it enhances the artistic part of the brain. And second, cursive improves the brain’s ability to multitask.
Of course, if we want to be technically correct, other studies show that multitasking is a myth, that the brain can’t actually focus on two topics at one time, but switches quickly between one and another. So cursive helps children improve in their ability to switch between two tasks — what looks like multitasking.
There’s a few other, almost humorous reasons to learn cursive. For example, the ability to sign one’s name. And there’s the point that children need to be able to read it. As one woman said, her daughter’s friends weren’t able to read their high school graduation cards, written in cursive.
These last two are less compelling to me. So often a signature is little more than an illegible scrawl, even by those trained in cursive. And if few people learn cursive, and even those who learn it rarely use it, how important can it be to learn this skill, just for the one or two instances in life where reading cursive might be required?
But to enhance the artistic part of the brain, and to improve multitasking — both of those are compelling reasons.
What About Cursive First?
Among the remnant that still teaches cursive, there’s a vocal segment that advocates for teaching cursive first, before printing. They note that young children naturally like to draw circles and spirals when they scribble, so the rounded, connected letter formation is perhaps more natural and easy to learn.
That sounds great in theory. We all want to work in concert with natural childhood development.
But here’s the problem: cursive words do not build visual memory.
When children are learning to read, visual memory is tremendously important. You know how you automatically pronounce the word “the,” without needing to think about it? You have good visual memory for that word.
But when children with poor visual memory read a story, every single word needs to be figured out independently. If reading a story about a boy named Tim, these children will need to sound out “Tim” every time, rather than recognizing the word. When each word needs to be decoded, the children have little ability to understand the actual story.
Teaching cursive when you are trying to teach children to read is like teaching two foreign languages at the same time. It’s confusing!
You will find your overall learning is faster when you concentrate on one thing at a time. While your children are learning to read print, let them write in print, too. Since then everything they read and write is in print, they build visual memory for reading and spelling effectively and efficiently.
And, sure, you can find websites that claim that students don’t actually struggle with reading print and cursive at the same time. Perhaps for some children this is so.
But Dr. Karen Holinga disagrees that, generally, students don’t struggle. With her Ph.D. in Developmental Reading, Curriculum, and Professional Development, she has both looked at the science and has had clinical experience with over 25,000 struggling students. She has seen that some children do struggle.
But Doesn’t Cursive Help Eliminate Backwards Letters and Ensure Proper Letter Formation?
Backwards letters are actually an important indicator of poor visual tracking. Poor visual tracking will make reading extra challenging.
If you’re concerned about backwards letters, the solution is not to teach cursive first. The solution is to fix the visual tracking issues.
It’s like if a child breaks his right arm. The solution is not to teach him to always use his left arm instead. The solution is to get treatment for the right arm until both arms are healthy! Fix what you can, rather than ignore the problem!
This also applies to letter formation. Cursive-first advocates claim that children are better served when they start with cursive, because the lower-case letters all start from the bottom line.
But children who have difficulty forming their lower-case e’s, which start between lines, or lower-case h’s, which start above lines, are, again, dealing with an issue of visual tracking. When students’ eyes work correctly, they can see where to put the pencil, and put the pencil there. If their eyes aren’t working correctly, it’s difficult to triangulate to the correct spot.
It might seem beneficial to help children move forward despite a visual tracking issue, but it’s actually not. Dealing with the underlying issue is a better policy than ignoring it.
So When Should Children Learn Cursive?
Wait to teach cursive until children are well on their way to fluent reading. For many children, this will be around third grade, the traditional age for cursive instruction. For other children, especially girls, they may be ready to begin earlier.
My Children Are Older — Is It Too Late?
If your children are older, and you’re just now realizing you might like them to be better able to multitask and enjoy increased artistic ability, you can also start now. Older children can work through a cursive book quickly, and learn to sign their names within a few hours of practice.
I have a friend from China who told me that, during nursing school, she practiced Chinese writing for an hour a day. This calligraphy helped center and focus her mind, and she feels it helped her.
So there’s time to enjoy the benefits of fine muscle coordination, even if your children are well past third grade.