By Jason Phillips
Montessori continues to teach cursive handwriting, even in this digital age, and discussions about the best ways to integrate (or not) technology (and keyboarding) into Montessori are ongoing. The question of teaching cursive writing comes up a lot, from parents, other educators, and within the Montessori community itself. As we’re wont to do around here, I thought I’d take a look at what Maria Montessori, some brain and learning research experts, and some of DVMS’s guides have to say on the subject.
The topic came up when an article entitled “Hardwired for Writing: The Intelligence of the Hand,” by DeeDee Hughes, Managing Editor of Living Education, popped up in one of our social media feeds a couple of weeks ago. Hughes references a number of experts (two of whom were featured in a familiar Toronto Star article a couple of years ago), and a 2009 study from the University of Washington: “Comparison of Pen and Keyboard Transcription Modes in Children With and Without Learning Disabilities.” (Unfortunately, I cannot provide a link to that study as it is stored behind an academic database paywall </bites tongue>). Hughes asks an important question relevant to Montessori: “What is the difference between handwriting and typing, and how does each impact learning and memory?”
Instruction in cursive begins very early for children in Montessori schools. The Sandpaper Letter materials, for example, are an integral part of teaching children the sounds letters make, while also providing a tactile association as each cursive letter shape is traced with the finger; that is, the activity incorporates a kinesthetic quality that provides a multi-sensory dimension to learning. Children are learning the beginning elements of writing before or at the same time as they are approaching rudimentary reading levels, and the tactile component provides a strong learning benefit.
In The Formation of Man, Maria Montessori discusses the kinesthetic preparation for writing provided by Casa materials: “the hand can be prepared directly to trace the signs of the alphabet by the help of the tactile and muscular senses, not by that of sight.” It is important to experience the physical act of forming letters by writing them, not just by seeing them. She discusses the benefit of such learning in Montessori’s Own Handbook, where she says, “We have already seen that the purpose of the word is to fix ideas and to facilitate the elementary comprehension of things.” 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.
As the authors of the University of Washington study say, “Forming a written word letter-by-letter by pen may leave a stronger memory trace for written words than does producing a word letter-by-letter by keyboard in beginning and developing writers.”
The relationship between kinesthetic activity and learning is reinforced by Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay in “Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing” (a chapter in a 2010 book entitled Advances in Haptics, edited by Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh; haptics involves communication by touch). Mangen and Valey say, “perception and motor action are closely connected and, indeed, reciprocally dependent. …Research in experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive anthropology…has convincingly demonstrated the vital role of haptic exploration of tangible objects in human learning and cognitive development.”
Using the hand to form cursive letters and words addresses the need to both see and physically experience writing. “Various data converge to indicate that the cerebral representation of letters might not be strictly visual,” say Mangen and Velay, “but might be based on a complex neural network including a sensorimotor component acquired while learning concomitantly to read and write.”
Hmmm…once again it seems contemporary research evidence is supporting what Montessori figured out 100 years ago.
A multi-sensory approach to teaching and learning results in a significant amount of cognitive activity and development. As was pointed out in the 2009 Toronto Star article, Dr. Norman Doidge of the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, and the Research Faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York, “fears that if cursive fades away, so will cognitive skills that 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 in the hand. That is similar to the way a child translates symbol sequences into motor movements of the mouth and tongue in order to talk or movements of the eye in order to read. That’s why Doidge says practising the complex demands of cursive also builds fluency in speaking and reading.”
The same article also cites Dr. Jason Barton (who has too many titles to list), whose studies were, “among the first of their kind, [and] show that while the left visual word form area perceives and decodes words for their meaning in written language, the right side is where we interpret the style of writing, allowing us to identify the writer rather than the word, just as neighbouring areas in the right brain play a key role in allowing us to recognize faces. As soon as that recognition kicks in, it activates what’s known as a memory trace – a biochemical alteration in the brain created by something learned – and fans out, setting off other sensory memories. ‘Once triggered by perception – whether of a face, a voice or handwriting – memory reverberates through all the senses and in all the corridors of your brain, bringing back emotions, knowledge, all the different facets of information and experiences with that person stored from the past,’ Barton says.”
Cursive makes the brain work, which makes the brain develop, which is a significant part of learning. Mangen and Valey assure, “studies confirmed that letters or characters learned through typing were subsequently recognized less accurately than letters or characters written by hand.”
Speaking of brain development, the University of Washington researchers note that “A complicating factor in comparing writing by pen and by keyboard is the fact that we use only one hand when writing by pen but two hands when writing by keyboard. Only the contralateral cerebral hemisphere regulates one writing hand, but two contralateral cerebral hemispheres are involved when writing by two hands; coordinating the two hemispheres requires a white fiber tract commissure (corpus callosum), which may not be fully myelinated until the middle school years or later (age 11 and above).”
Montessori is based on levels of brain development. Each environment — Casa, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, and Adolescent — is made up of materials, activities, and methods, that are carefully designed to meet the developmental needs of the children within that level’s three-year age-range. Trying to make young kids type before their brains are physically capable of accomplishing the task can be as pointless as it is frustrating for the child. As the evidence above shows us, though, learning the cursive forms of letters and words at a young age provides a multitude of benefits.
At DVMS, we see a few other advantages, as well. Throughout our language and literacy education at all levels, we try to present an understanding of language as a construct — something that humans use to build meaningful messages. In this context, when kids are learning cursive they are learning that, to make words, the sounds of each letter need to be joined together. Writing in cursive provides a visual and kinesthetic experience of the practice of constructing things that mean something.
Pat Stephens, Casa South guide at DVMS, also points out that cursive handwriting “best mimics what the child does naturally.” Pat notes that when children draw or act out writing, they do not form geometric, print-like shapes, they tend to form looping, connected shapes. Pat also notes that “cursive makes complete words, rather than separate letters [of print].” Again, the cursive writing is more visually and kinesthetically instructive.
Casa East director Holly Schefold reiterates Pat’s thinking, and adds that with cursive “it is harder to mix up letters such as “b” and “d,” and “p” and “q,” which is an issue for a lot of kids learning to write.”
Another significant advantage of writing in cursive has to do with quality and quantity of work. This point is highlighted in the University of Washington study. One of their primary findings is stated as such:
“The relative advantage of the pen over the keyboard has been found for three different outcomes at the text level of production in elementary-school children: (a) essay writing for amount written and rate of word production in second, fourth, and sixth grade (first research aim of current study); (b) number of complete sentences in essays (second research aim of current study); and (c) number of ideas expressed in essays.”
So there you go. I rest my case. As always, though, I do not want to leave the impression that this is the final word and that there is no room for play. When humans learned to write, both our cultures and the physical structures of our brains changed as we shifted from using our oral and aural senses to communicate to using our visual and tactile senses. The steady march of technological progress has brought us to a point of change again. Nobody really knows how our minds and cultures will change as we continue to develop new means and methods of communicating. At DVMS, we try to always take care to negotiate a balance between progress and what we know works. Cursive still holds many advantages for learning and development, and all we can do is look to current evidence to determine how our programs can best evolve.
In that spirit, a final word from our Upper Elementary Director Kathleen MacKinnon:
“Cursive is something that has to be learned. Print is everywhere and they are exposed to it all the time. Cursive has to be taught, so it is a great opportunity for learning. Although sometimes at the Upper Elementary level, you do get chances to teach kids to form print letters properly, and if you walk into the adolescent rooms, you see how they gravitate to computers.”
Update: Seems this article was a little more timely than I knew. When I posted it to Twitter yesterday, a follower shared it with @gcouros, who is George Couros, Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning for Parkland School Division, in Edmonton. I don’t know George, but I wasn’t surprised that one of the educators that follow the DVMS Twitter account shared something with another educator.
George responded to this article, over Twitter, with the question, “Curious…is that why we started teaching it in the first place?”
It seemed a bit of an odd question to me — of course the evidence suggested by contemporary science wasn’t the reason we started teaching kids cursive over a hundred or so years ago — so I responded, “No, but discovered benefits suggest it’s not worth abandoning. Tech Ed also necessary now.”
Later in the day, I stumbled across this CTV article and clip from Sunday, Feb. 10, wherein George is cast as the anti-cursive-writing-guy opposite Jim Brand, Head of School at Maria Montessori School in Toronto, cast as the pro-cursive-writing-guy. Simple for/against dualities like this work well in mainstream media. It’s simple, easy, and quick (in this case, 6:35 for both George and Jim to make their points, as well as an introduction to the issue and time for the host to add commentary and ask questions). The issue is considerably more complex than can be dealt with in that time, but news shows are what they are and I’m not looking to denigrate them here.
Despite their oppositional casting, both George and Jim make some valid points and actually seem to be closer to agreement on the subject than they are opposed to each other. George argues “that literacy really needs to expand” to include contemporary digital technologies (what is referred to in a project by the Royal Society entitled “Shut Down or Restart? The Way Forward for Computing in UK Schools,” published in January 2012, as “digital literacy”). Another sound aspect of George’s argument is that classroom time shouldn’t be taken up with learning cursive when it is no longer the predominant medium of communication.
Jim agrees that digital literacy should be taught, and makes the point that in Montessori cursive is taught at a young age, during the sensitive/critical period for language acquisition when the benefits of learning and using cursive outlined above are best actualized, which frees up classroom time during the later, elementary-level years.
Jim and George are just approaching the topic from different perspectives. Go look at George’s title again, of course he’s promoting the tech side of things. Jim is head of a Montessori school, of course he’s promoting the teaching of cursive. Different perspectives don’t mean we have to throw them in the cage and have them fight to the death. As educators, I’m sure they both appreciate the other’s perspective and treat exposure to it as an opportunity to learn.
My article wasn’t written as an attempt to respond to George or to further argue for one side over another (confession: I was sick on the couch from Sunday to Tuesday of that week and the CTV stuff slipped by unknown to me). Too often, opportunities for learning and progress are derailed by retreats to defensive positions. It’s OK to not know all there is about everything, and when someone points out another bit of knowledge, or a different perspective, it’s best to learn, say “Thank you,” and continue on. Education is about learning things we don’t know. So Jim, George, and CTV, thank you.