To Write, or Not to Write: Teaching Cursive in Montessori

By Jason Phillips

June 2014 Update: A great article on this topic was directed to us by one of our Montessori parents: “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.”

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?”

Casa: Sandpaper Letters

Casa: Sandpaper Letters

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.

Casa Handwriting

Casa Handwriting

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.

10 thoughts on “To Write, or Not to Write: Teaching Cursive in Montessori

  1. Nan Jay Barchowsky

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

    You speak of the kinesthetic and tactile aspects of learning to write by hand, so much more valuable than the visual. After all, once the letter or word is on the page, all one can do is review it, perhaps learn from it. As a handwriting specialist, I frequently ask children to write with their eyes closed, and I use every tactile idea that I can dream up.

    As we watch babies reach out to touch everything, they are learning about all the “stuff” in their world. If we consider learning throughout life, much is through the hands. As you say, we know little about where technology will take us, but the cognitive advantages of writing by hand are obvious.

    I have read the research papers to which you refer; I wish more people involved with education would attend them. “People” includes legislators and politicians who affect school curricula.

    I have looked, but have not found the handwriting method used by Maria Montessori. As she was Italian, I suspect it was not the same cursive that is taught today. If you have the time and resource, I would very much like to know her method.

    You write:

    “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.”

    This is also true of the italic method that I have been advocating and teaching for nearly fourty years. Some say it looks like printing, but a closer look shows the easy flow in the writing lines, compatible to the natural movement of hands and fingers.

    Regards,
    Nan

    Reply
    1. dundasmontessori Post author

      Hi Nan,

      Thanks for your kind words. I will ask some of our Casa guides if they can find some time to reply re. the Montessori Method of teaching cursive. Also, take a look at my reply below to Kate Gladstone that contains reference to U.S. and Canadian Montessori organizations that may of help to you also.

      Reply
    2. Nan Jay Barchowsky

      Still no example of an alphabet taught by Maria Montessori! Alas, perhaps no one knows. I think it is worth mentioning that some Montessori schools in the USA teach the italic method. The letterforms are simpler and well suited to natural movements of the hand.

      Reply
  2. kategladstone

    Since you mentioned contacts with George Couros — with whom I’ve Alsi had soe productive contact — I’m wondering whether you might be willing to address the additional issues he’s raised re cursive, at the following two links:

    http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/1758

    and

    http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3650

    It is also interesting to see neuroscientist Normsn Doidge mentioned in your piece. Months ago (at least) when I asked him whether his research on handwriting had gone beyond cursive to look at any other non-printed mode of handwriting (such as italic handwriting), he had his secretary respond (with “cc” to his own e-mail account) that he would soon get back to me on that one, “Soon” never arrived, despite two later follow-up inquiries from my end as the months went by.
    It would interest me to know whether the Montessori people have familiarized themselves (as I had hoped Dr. Doidge might be familiar) with any of the research evidence — available on request — showing advantages for italic handwriting over conventional cursive or manuscript. Perhaps you know of a Montessori contact who has some expertise in that area, and who would be willing to discuss research, experiences, etc.

    Reply
    1. dundasmontessori Post author

      Hi Kate,

      In Montessori, cursive is taught at a very early age compared to most public systems. A Montessori Casa program is designed to suit the developmental needs of 3-6-year-old children. We actually teach ‘writing’ as a precursor to reading, using a phoneme-based approach. Consequently, we do not, in general, dedicate classroom time in the elementary years to teaching cursive. That said, Montessori holds as a principle that we follow each unique child and address their individual needs and learning styles, so sometimes we will work on cursive with a child during later years, or will teach print if it best suits a child’s developmental and learning needs.

      In terms of your italics approach, Montessori is based on the use of specific materials developed by Dr. Montessori based on her research and observations, so it is extremely rare that any new, non-Montessori materials or methods are introduced. AMI (http://www.montessori-ami.ca/ in Canada, http://www.montessori-ami.org/ in U.S.), CCMA (http://www.ccma.ca/), and AMS (http://www.amshq.org/) would be the organizations to contact re. research and resources.

      Reply
      1. dundasmontessori Post author

        Hello Kate,

        Montessori schools often promote the use of cursive writing through the Casa program as a means of fostering independent written communication. Young children, given a crayon or piece of chalk, will typically draw large loops and curls (scribbling), and as they age, use shorter, straighter line marks to assemble an image. This pattern results from the physical and cognitive developments: the refinement of early gross arm movements, and the ability to mentally manipulate and de-construct objects. This supports the teaching of cursive, as most children will learn to approximate print types through visual exposure and reading in the elementary years. Of course, additional instruction given the time is also of benefit.

        When using print of italic handwriting with young students, the frequent lifting of the pencil can be exhaustive, although for some students with motor challenges sustained cursive writing can be more tiring. Here, Montessori emphasizes the importance of looking at the whole child and setting realistic goals using methods appropriate to the individual. As noted above, the use of cursive is also a means of preparing children to read by pairing each cursive letter with a phoneme and emphasizing that the joining of these phonemes, as in cursive script, builds words. I would be interested to see research in the future investigating whether learning to write in cursive is of benefit to children with learning disabilities by building muscle memory for whole word spelling. In this regard, I strongly prefer to provide instruction using a cursive font that includes serifs within each letter form. An italic handwriting program such as Handwriting without Tears can easily be adapted to include serifs.

        Montessori is about so much more than academics, and with cursive writing children not only learn to write and read, they discover the joy of working with their hands, feeling the connection between their thoughts and the larger world. It has been my experience while teaching at DVMS that the practice of cursive writing is engaging and has the ability to entice children into a state of flow as they strive to express themselves while developing the mindfulness to seek beauty in their day-to-day lives.

        – DVMS Learning Resource Teacher

      2. kategladstone

        Thanks for writing back. I find parts of your letter difficult to understand, and would therefore like those parts better clarified before I ask further questions on either those parts or on the content of your reply as a whole.

        In your reply, here are the parts that most puzzle me:

        /1/
        Re your recommendation to use ” … a cursive font that includes serifs within each letter form.” Can you please give examples (graphics and/or brand names) of such a form of cursive? Cursive letter styles with which I am familiar sometimes have serifs at the beginning and/or end of letters (which is where serifs naturally go), but I have never seen any that place serifs _within_ a letter rather than at the letter’s beginning and/or end. (I am struggling to imagine what that would even look like.”

        /2/
        Re:

        ” An italic handwriting program such as Handwriting without Tears” —
        Since HwTears isn’t an italic program, I must assume that this statement was an unintentional error on your part. As you probably know, neither the producers of italic handwriting programs nor the producers of HwTears regard HwTears as an italic handwriting program. (Given that I’m presuming the error there to have been a mere unintentional slip, I’d like very much to know what you had meant to write instead. Knowing this will give me — and doubtless other readers — a better chance of understanding what you are trying to convey.)

      3. Nan Jay Barchowsky

        You note the scribbling of young children as being in loops and circles. In my observation the patterns depend on whether the child is standing (gross arm movement) or sitting. When sitting, the hands tend to pull to the midline with downstrokes dominating. This natural movement is the foundation if italic handwriting.

        Print-script and italic are two very different methods. Lowercase italic requires 36 strokes per letter. Print-script can have as many as 59, and those strokes are stiff, with no natural movement. Rather than “exhaustive,” the lifts in cursive italic are merely slight, off-paper drifts where letters do not join. Basic italic letters require no retraining of motor memory for cursive. Handwriting without Tears does, and it has no resemblance to italic. Every print-to-cursive handwriting program requires a change in stroke direction/formation in both upper and lowercase letters.

        I note that there are some Montessori schools that use an italic method. I am certain that they retain a “mindfulness to seek beauty in their day-to-day lives.” The italic method is eloquent, some say elegant.

  3. Pingback: DVMS Mom File: Valerie Bennett | Dundas Valley Montessori School

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