Is learning cursive handwriting good for kids' brains?

Cristen Conger

Writing the cursive alphabet is good for the brain, studies suggest
Writing the cursive alphabet is good for the brain, studies suggest
Flickr/Evelyn Saenz

Earlier this spring, North Carolina passed an international headline-garnering bill that requires public schools to teach multiplication tables as well as cursive handwriting. Although most people would probably agree that "times tables" are useful learning tools for kids, there's much less of a supportive consensus over cursive. In fact, the recently amended Common Core State Standards for U.S. public education have officially made cursive handwriting curriculum optional in order to free up more teaching time for other skills, such as the much less aesthetically pleasing art form of typing.

In a New York Times Room for Debate segment on cursive in the classroom, University of Southern California education professor Morgan Polikoff argued that since few adults regularly employ it and most workplace communication is conducted via keyboard, teaching penmanship only gobbles up valuable classroom minutes. Speaking to NPR, a New Jersey school principal said bluntly, "It's just that with all the state mandates, we don't have time." Most kids are bored with abandoning cursive, not surprisingly; in reporting on public schools' collective move away from cursive, The Wall Street Journal cited a Scholastic survey, which found that 79 percent of middle schoolers polled dislike the fancy handwriting.

States like North Carolina and California, which have preserved a cursive requirement, see a value in kids mastering those curliques and flourishes beyond them forging a Declaration of Independence-worthy signature. Like many cursive supporters, California occupational therapist Suzanne Baruch Asherson says, over at NYT's Room for Debate, that cursive is good for children's developing brains:

"Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets. In fact, learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing."

At Psychology Today, Texas A&M neuroscience professor William Klemm similarly decried the downfall of cursive education. Brain studies on younger children suggest that cursive simultaneously stokes the brain's visual, tactile and fine motor circuits and helps optimize how efficiency they work. The sometimes painstaking process of learning cursive, by that logic, is healthy for kids over the long-term, regardless of how often people encounter situations that demand classy penmanship.

And I have a feeling that few, if any, educators would argue that cursive handwriting has no positive effect on the brain. It seems most of the motivation for making cursive optional has to do with prioritization and time management -- a slightly ironic move since cursive ultimately speeds up (and sloppies up, for yours truly) one's writing pace. Consequently, the decline of teaching cursive disappoints me, not so much because fewer children will be learning an increasingly rare handwriting style, but because the decision to do away with it seems largely based on not having enough hours in the school day to squeeze it in. This is also coming from a former kid who felt incredibly grown up and dignified after mastering cursive, hence I'm subjectively biased. At least I can take heart that for interested boys and girls out there -- and they do exist! -- cursive clubs are beginning to pop up to preserve what may very be a relic of a bygone penmanship era a generation from now.