A bill authored by Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond Du Lac) that mandates cursive writing in elementary schools hit a snag when the upper range of the bill’s fiscal estimate topped $6 million. Thiesfeldt is skeptical about the price tag, but the cost projection raises serious questions about whether mandating “loops and swoops” is worth it.
In his opening statement before the Assembly’s State Affairs Committee, Thiesfeldt talked about cursive being more than just “nostalgia of being able to read grandma’s letters,” but learning cursive in the third through fifth grades doesn’t mean the teaching will stick.
A report by NPR showed that some Illinois kids who learned cursive in elementary school struggled to read it in high-school due to lack of exposure. The kids who kept their cursive knowledge did so because they had exposure to, you guessed it, to grandma’s letters.
Back to Rep. Thiesfeldt’s testimony. In his introductory remarks, Thiesfeldt said that studies have shown that cursive writing, among other things, “trains the brain to integrate visual and tactile information and fine motor dexterity.” To put emphasis on his point, he said, “Astonishingly, printing and typing do not stimulate the synchronicity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, but cursive writing does.” Thiesfeldt also stated that studies have also shown that “memory recall of the content of writing performed using cursive surpasses that of the typed word.”
When he was asked to furnish the committee with the studies he cited, Thiesfeldt said he didn’t bring them, but they could be easily found using a Google search.
Is Thiesfeldt right? Does science show that cursive writing stimulates a synchronicity in the brain that printing does not? Does cursive notetaking, more than typing, increase your chances of remembering your notes?
The short answer is little yes and no, but mostly no.
Thiesfeldt isn’t the first state legislator to push cursive writing on schools. Jean Leising, a Republican State Senator from Indiana, has campaigned for a cursive writing bill for the past seven years, albeit unsuccessfully. Like Theisfieldt, she cited scientific data that cursive writing brings about academic success through increased cognitive development – and even cited a professor of Psychology and Brain Science to bolster her point.
Unfortunately, the same professor she had cited – Dr. Karin Harman James – told a science magazine that there is “no conclusive evidence that there is a benefit for learning cursive for a child’s cognitive development.”
While there is “some” evidence that cursive writing helps the brain cells communicate and connect with each other, it doesn’t show that cursive does it any better than non-cursive. In other words, there is no scientific evidence that cursive writing surpasses printing as it relates to childhood learning and development.
What about the claim that taking notes in cursive increases your chances of remembering them for test time?
Thiesfeldt is right about this one. A trio of studies by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer in 2014 found that college students who took notes on laptops performed worse than students who took notes by “longhand.” Apparently, class notes typed on a keyboard may have impaired their learning because it required a “shallower processing” than taking notes by hand. In other words, you tend to pay attention more to your notes when writing them by hand as opposed to keying them on a computer.
But – and there is a but – the 2014 study only compared longhand note taking to typing the notes. Note taking by print wasn’t included in the study, which means the study cannot be used to show that cursive writing is a greater benefit to note takers than regular printing. To the contrary, if cursive note taking is superior to typing because it’s “slower” and it allows you more time to “listen, digest, and summarize” class material, then it would be even more true with regards to printing, which is slower still.
What about Rep. Thiesfeldt’s claim that cursive writing produces a “synchronicity” between brain hemispheres that printing cannot?
This one was a little trickier to track down. The “synchronicity” claim can be traced back to a 2013 op-ed in the New York Times by a Susanne Baruch Asherson, an occupational therapist and advocate for cursive writing. She seems to be the first to originate the claim that cursive writing increases brain synchronicity in ways that printing alone cannot. Unfortunately, she did not cite an source for her claim, and there is no scientific literature or study that supports it.
If Thiesfeldt wants to make the argument that cursive writing is important to learn because it’s more efficient for note taking, or because we might lose the ability to do calligraphy, or because kids ought to be able to read the original U.S. Constitution, then we should give those arguments a fair trial. But without conclusive evidence in support of cursive writing, what we seem to be left with is a $2 to $6 million unfunded mandate for a writing format that is mostly used to read grandma’s letters.