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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

My Catholic school third grade teacher was extremely tough on me. Her biggest gripe was my handwriting, which looks more like an EKG scan than penmanship. For years, I harbored not-so-fond memories of her, but now I know that her strictness about penmanship was actually helping my brain develop. Recently, scientists have shown that longhand writing benefits the brain.

Today, cursive writing is becoming a lost art as note taking with laptops becomes more and more prominent in classrooms. But what we are losing is much bigger than a few scratches on a page -- we are losing a robust way of learning.

There has been much debate on the use of laptops for note taking in classrooms. The pro side sees laptops as an efficient way of collecting and storing information. The con side sees laptops as an opportunity for distractions and multitasking. What's missing is an understanding of how taking notes by longhand influences the brain. Recent studies have shown that students taking notes with laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than the students taking notes by longhand. In short, they had the information on their computers, but did not have an understanding of that information in their brains.

So in this age of technology, I'm suggesting that students take notes with paper and pen. It's a crazy idea, but hear me out.

A Plea for Penmanship

When students take notes with their laptops, they tend to mindlessly transcribe the data word for word, like speech-to-text software. But taking notes verbatim is not the point. What is lacking in their note-taking-by-laptop is the synthesis, the re-framing, and the understanding of the information. Students that transcribe with laptops have shallow connections to what's being presented to them. However, those who are taking notes by hand are processing the information and representing it in a way that makes sense to them. They are learning.

Now, I'll be the first to say that longhand writing is so 19th century. But we need to answer a question: do we want students to have a deep or shallow connection to the information we're giving them? While we live in a world of short sound bytes where news is thrown at us unprocessed, this should not be the mode for schools. In the 21st century, the ability to connect knowledge in new ways is more important than the knowledge itself. So students with deeper connections to information can link it in new ways -- they can create.

The Pen is Mightier

All this begs the question of how we can incorporate longhand in a digital age. What about a daily notebook, written by hand?

A lost art in the world of science is the lab notebook. In it, scientists write down observations, impressions, and all the variables and outcomes of an experiment. If you are teaching STEM classes, might I suggest that you resurrect the lab notebook and have students personalize it? Give them assignments where they have to hand-draw pictures of what they see and what they predict. Let them figure out how to visually represent these things -- without digital pictures, by the way. The data says that taking images with a camera does not improve one's memory either, so these notebook entries must be written or drawn. Skill doesn't matter. What we are fostering are experiential links in a child's brain, and one of the best pathways is through their fingers.

If you are not teaching STEM classes, have students carry a personal notebook in which they write down observations and draw things by hand on whatever topic. We are trying to create more connections to information, and developing fine motor skills along the way.

If you have a classroom with lots of technology, try to integrate note taking. Often when I give my PowerPoint slides to students, I pass out a version that doesn't have all the information that students are seeing on the screen, which means that they need to fill it in by hand. And when I glance over their notes, I see how their work doesn't always look the same. This is great because my students are doing the most important thing we can teach them -- they are learning how to teach themselves.

So let us not confuse efficiency with the real goal of teaching. Teaching is not a job of cramming as much as we can into a brain. It is about learning. And getting students to learn means that we must use every pathway to connect them with the information. Using laptops reinforces the Industrial Revolution ideal that every kid should get the information in the same way, and that it should come out the same way. But by occasionally replacing the laptop with a pen, learning happens, which is why we got into this business in the first place.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Professor of English composition and literature
Blogger

Ainissa thanks for sharing these your thoughts and research. Writing using pen and paper does help students to describe snd synthesize information. Students will be summarizing important points and filtering out information. To me that alone is a good reason to keep supporting their use. This might also be helpful with taking notes in the art/ humanities discipline as more analysis and interpretation is required as opposed to memorization.

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Carla's picture

I agree with you 100%, I have been in school what seems like forever and will be completing my masters in teaching in May. I personally learn and retain best when I am using pen and paper and take my own notes. I also encourage my own children (13 and 15) to handwrite things they are struggling with or need to remember, and as much as they would love to deny that I am right, they feel they also learn better that way. When I begin teaching next fall, I will encourage my students to participate in either a journal for learning or a notebook for class. Thank you for this post and your suggestions as to how I can expand my use of handwriting in my classes to come.

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Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger

Sure, this topic may not be new. However, what is new is that schools are moving away from cursive. This article serves as a reminder that cursive is still a good idea and is targeted for folks who have less experience in this topic, but are making key decisions. It serves to informed these decision makers of the history.

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Teri Young's picture

Dear Amy,
There are, of course, hundreds of books and on-line resources that can shed some light on dysgraphia and specific learning disabilities (and I'll note a book and site you might find helpful at the end of this e-mail). However, your situation -- multiple learning disabilities and significant low reading levels/abilities -- sounds too complex for any one answer. And you're not alone. I'm wondering what kinds of support systems you can build or draw from within your school or district. Are there ways you can meet with other teachers in your building to discuss strategies for working with such a diverse group? Specialists, counselors, other teachers? Or perhaps setting up a weekly or monthly professional discussion group where you and others can share concerns, make suggestions, or share strategies that have worked. So often we think we're alone, forgetting that among us there is professional expertise. These can be one-to-one meetings or groups of three to eight educators. Sometimes groups choose a professional book to read together and discuss it. It sounds like you need more support, and if you are not receiving it through your school/district, you may need to create something for you and your colleagues. We often can't wait for help, and there are no silver bullets. It may be slow to start... just set aside a short time at first, get a few people, and then build. That expertise is there... and I'm sure you have some to share with others as well. One book suggestion: How the Special Needs Brain Learns (2nd Ed) by David Sousa. It's direct, addresses several different disabilities and makes lots of suggestions for each. Regarding a computer resource: usually if you google a specific disability, you will find an organization that will lead you to multiple resources. You can also go to a site like CAST (http://www.cast.org/index.html) which has many resources. All the best to you....

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Brent Warner's picture
Brent Warner
Proprietor of EdTech.tv

Hi Ainissa,

Great point and one we're going to struggle with a lot as tech integration takes firmer footing across schools.

I'd be especially interested to see some research comparing graphite and paper to digital pens and tablets.

A company like Livescribe seems to blend the two, but I haven't used it yet, so I'm not sure how well it serves the purpose we're talking about here.

Regardless, there's still a LOT to see about what's going to happen, if nothing else it will be an interesting ride!

Kate Gladstone's picture

Handwriting matters -- but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

More recently, it has also been documented that cursive does NOT objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia.
This is what I'd expect from my own experience, by the way. As a handwriting teacher and remediator, I see numerous children, teens, and adults -- dyslexic and otherwise -- for whom cursive is the direct opposite of "great." Contrary to myth, reversal in cursive are common -- a frequent cursive reversal in my case-load, among dyslexics and others, is "J/f."

Returning to current research: this is conclusively showing that the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them - making only the simplest of joins, omitting the rest, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

Reading cursive still matters -- but even children can be taught to read writing that is more complex than what they are encouraged to produce haven't been taught to imitate. Reading cursive, simply reading it can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes -- even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there's even an iPad app to teach how: named "Read Cursive," of course -- http://appstore.com/readcursive .) So why not simply teach children to read cursive -- along with teaching other vital skills, such as some handwriting style that's actually typical of effective handwriters?
(Teaching material designed for a practical style abounds -- especially in the UK and Europe, where a such handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive which is revered by too many North American educators. Some examples, in several cases with student work also shown: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html )

Even in the USA and Canada, educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority -- 55 percent -- wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.
When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why glorify it -- let alone seek a legislative mandate for it, as cursive's supporters in the USA are seeking in state after state?

Cursive's cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you happy and graceful, adds brain cells, instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant. (This is frequent in testimony given before state legislatures by the advocates of cursive, who are often state senators or representatives addressing their colleagues and/or their constituents in order to create support for a cursive mandate bill that the legislator has introduced.)

So far, whenever a legislator or other devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident when others examine the claimed support:

/1/ either the claim provides no traceable source,

or

/2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., the study most cited in defense of cursive is an Indiana University research study which was not even about cursive. That study -- "Neural Correlates of Handwriting" by Dr. Karin Harman-James -- compares print-writing with keyboarding among kindergarteners. Since print-writing came out ahead, this study is perennially misrepresented by cursive's defenders as a study "comparing print-writing with cursive")

or

/3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

Cursive devotees' eagerness to misrepresent research has substantial consequences, as the misrepresentations are commonly made -- under oath -- in testimony before state legislatures and other bodies voting on bills to mandate cursive handwriting in schools. The bills are, without exception so far, introduced by legislators whose misrepresentations (in their own testimony) are later revealed -- although investigative reporting of the questionable testimony does not always prevent the bill from passing into law, even when the discoveries include signs of undue influence on the legislators promoting the cursive bill. (For documentation on a typical recent example in one state -- North Carolina -- see the sources noted below.)

What about cursive and signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger's life easy.
ALL writing, not just cursive, is individual -- just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

SOURCES:

Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

/1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. "A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils."
Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

/2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. "The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility." JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May - June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

/3 Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. "Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9."
JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September - October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

The research most often misrepresented by devotees of cursive (Neural Correlates of Handwriting" by Dr. Karin Harman-James at Indiana University):
https://www.hw21summit.com/research-harman-james
Hey! Welcome to your TextBoard.

Concerns about legislative misrepresentation in the name of cursive (documentation from North Carolina) --

Background on our handwriting, past and present:
3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CURSIVE --
http://youtu.be/3kmJc3BCu5g

TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING --
http://youtu.be/s_F7FqCe6To

HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
(shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) --
http://youtu.be/Od7PGzEHbu0

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone * http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
DIRECTOR, World Handwriting Contest

Nan Barchowsky's picture

If a longhand method is "so 19th century" then why not abandon it and seek a better way to put pen to paper? Common sense, in addition to research and observation shows the value of writing by hand, but it need not be the loopy cursive that so often deteriorates into illegibility.

Stay with that print-like stuff you first learned and modify it to suit your own hand, or try something more eloquent and easy. Italic has been my method of both writing, and helping others to achieve practical handwriting.

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Reading Specialist, Blogger, and Professional Developer

I'm curious to know if any studies have crossed this idea of longhand note taking with learning styles or intelligences. It would be interesting to see if those who are more kinesthetic are the ones who benefit more than other types of learners or learners with different strenghts. Would 've an interesting study. Thank you for this thoughtful blog.

Kate Gladstone's picture

As far as I've been able to discover, the studies of handwriting versus keyboarding haven't found a difference in benefits among the different KINDS of handwriting (cursive versus the several other kinds). This hasn't stopped several promoters of cursive from altering the research resukts when they wanted to -- in sworn testimony to legislatures, and elsewhere -- when they figured out that altering/misrepresenting the research results would help in getting the results that the promoters wanted (such as supporting bills to mandate cursive in states/school districts where the cursive promoter had some kind of government position or appointment, or states/districts where a government person was being supplied with information -- including misrepresentations -- by promoters of cursive).
Some recent and consequential instances of this will soon be covered on the HBO news program "LAST WEEK TONIGHT with John Oliver" -- Sunday, November 2 at 11 PM (Eastern time) -- no matter what you think about cursive, prepare to be truly amazed ...

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Thank you for writing with passion about the benefits and unknown consequences of underestimating handwriting. This line will stick with me, "But what we are losing is much bigger than a few scratches on a page -- we are losing a robust way of learning."

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Vuong Dinh's picture

I think the use of the pen or the computer in my study have benefits. However, we need to know how to use these two logical forms, depending on each course that applies the appropriate way of recording

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Wally's picture

Right on.

The article however, doesn't mention the more important point that when a child is learning to write cursive this action not only builds dendrites in the developing brain but also makes connections!!! This is the essential precursor to taking written notes. Synthesis can only happen with developed dendrites that are connected!!!

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Keddie's picture

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for posting this! I recently left a school where technology is king which is great in so many ways but I was struck over and over how little room there was for things like days without technology and reflection without technology. I fervently believe that technology alone without a critical eye, and moments of different kinds of learning is hollow. Knowing that thinkers like yourself and the researchers are looking at these issues is heartening.

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Carmen's picture

I was surprised my daughter, who is now entering 4th grade, had cursive classes last year. She cannot read cursive writing yet, but just reading this post makes me question if I should work on that with her. I recently purchased a spelling work book for her as that is her biggest struggle. The second lesson had her using a dictionary to learn how to look up words she didn't know how to spell (figuring out the long a sound in words like neighbor, betray, tape, etc) We dug around the house to find a dictionary, while I had a friend tell me to just use the internet. I think spelling is also becoming a lost art as we have online dictionaries and spell check in so many word documents. I'm hoping that by working with her on her penmanship & spelling at an earlier age I am helping her in the long run. Plus spending time with her working on this while I'm cooking dinner is great bonding time.

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ReddingS's picture

I love teaching cursive and I find it interesting when students who have poor manuscript/D'Nealian handwriting do a wonderful job writing in cursive. I've also seen where cursive has helped in their flow and fluency to write.
I'm so thankful that educators are rethinking the role that some technology has in our classrooms. I'm afraid that we may risk losing a skill like handwriting for the sake of using a form of technology. I'm also concerned over the use of technology within some assessments. I look at my 3rd graders last year trying to take the SBAC last spring on the computer compared to my students in the past years who took the state handwritten assessment. I feel like those that used a paper/pencil test were more connected to their work and didn't seem as over whelmed. They also seemed more confident and satisfied in their written answers as opposed to those that took the computerized assessment. I wonder if there has been any research comparing the methods given for standardized assessments. Especially for young students like grades 3 through 5. I know within our school when given the diagnostic assessments for Literacy many of our students preformed better in a teacher given assessment than one on a computer like ISIP.

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Cait Camarata's picture
Cait Camarata
Visual Designer
Staff

I take notes in longhand... be it a class, workshop, meeting, etc. I use different styles of handwriting to accentuate, highlight, and lend hierarchy to the content. This particularly helps when I need to recall the information, as it enables me to visualize the information from the page more clearly in my mind's eye.

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Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am reminded that many archives are in cursive. Students today will not be able to read old letters and documents. Reading cursive will be viewed like an old language.

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The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

Sometimes I give out homework just to see, usually through handwriting and grammar and punctuation analysis, the sneaky ways parents who did the homework would try to make it look like their child did the homework. Other teachers do the same thing and it gives us even more fun things to laugh and cry about.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Professor of English composition and literature
Blogger

Ainissa thanks for sharing these your thoughts and research. Writing using pen and paper does help students to describe snd synthesize information. Students will be summarizing important points and filtering out information. To me that alone is a good reason to keep supporting their use. This might also be helpful with taking notes in the art/ humanities discipline as more analysis and interpretation is required as opposed to memorization.

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