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Is cursive writing important to child development?
Legislators push to keep cursive in their schools' curricula, but experts seem split as to whether it's necessary.
- Ohio has joined many other states in reestablishing cursive in their schools' curricula.
- Research shows the value handwriting has for developing children's fine motor skills and a connection between words and memory.
- But experts seem split on whether it's a question of print vs. cursive, or cognitive fluency vs. disconnect.
Cursive is set for a comeback.
Last month, the Ohio State Legislature added cursive to the Ohio Department of Education's English language arts standards. House Bill 58 requires the department to include supplemental materials on developing handwriting "as a universal skill," with print learned by third grade and legible cursive by fifth. With this bill, Ohio joins the more than a dozen states who have adopted such legislation after Common-Core standards dropped cursive as a requirement.
"It seemed we had made a decision that was arrogant on our part that we didn't think these kids needed something that we had taken for granted, that was our way of communicating for generations," Beth Mizell, a Louisiana state senator, told the Washington Post. In 2016, Louisiana passed an even more thorough bill than Ohio's, requiring cursive instruction continue through the 12th grade.
Cursive's purpose in an era of typing and voice recognition software has dwindled. Even the signature, cursive's seemingly unassailable bastion, has proved less sound thanks to PIN numbers and touchpads that turn any autograph into a symbolic work of abstract art.
For most of us, that thought elicits one of two responses. Either we bristle at the thought of a future generation's not knowing cursive's lovely, flowing script. Or we cheer at the idea, remembering the jeers of teachers past at our blocky, yet readable, print.
Unfortunately, such reactions are seldom derived from an understanding of the research and more often the joy or trauma we experienced when learning cursive. That goes for the legislators, too.
Of course, we can teach children cursive, but does it provide any developmentally benefit to do so?
Handwriting and its proponents
Handwriting, whether in cursive or not, has been shown to help students develop conceptual understanding better than those who use laptops to take notes in class. Image source: Flickr
To start, it's worth pointing out that some people conflate cursive and handwriting as synonymous, and that's not the case. Handwriting is as an ink-bound idiolect; everyone's is different. Some people print exclusively, others use cursive, and many have formed an amalgam of the two (a category that can broadly be called D'Nealian).
If we look at handwriting, not explicitly cursive, there's little doubt that it is important to child development. A study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education has preliterate five-year-old children either print, type, or trace letters and shapes. They then underwent an MRI scan while being shown the image again. The researchers found that a "reading circuit" fired up only in the children who drew the letter or shape freehand—not the children who typed or traced it.
The brain activity exhibited by the handwriting children was in the same areas of the brain adults use to read and write. Study author Karin James notes that handwriting required the children to first plan and then execute the action, steps not necessary when typing or tracing. The end results were also messy and variable, which James believes may provide a learning benefit.
The advantages of handwriting appear to extend beyond initially learning to read and write. A 2014 paper in Psychological Science compared students who took notes longhand to those who took them on a laptop. The laptop students performed worse on conceptual questions. The researchers theorized the difference resulted from the way longhand notes force us to process and then reframe information.
They were also careful to compare notetaking with notetaking. The laptop's ability to curb our conceptual capacity through multitasking and distraction was well-documented in other studies.
"I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn't take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children's rapidly developing brains," wrote Perri Klass, M.D., for the New York Times. "Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways."
None of this is to say that typing is detrimental. Handwriting proponents simply argue that students shouldn't skip over handwriting and go directly to typing.
For her article, Klass spoke with Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology, University of Washington. Berninger recommends children become "hybrid writers," learning first print for reading, then cursive for spelling, and then typing for speed. Berninger also points out that typing may strengthen cross-communication in the brain since children use both hands.
Arguments against cursive
Some argue that if students don't learn cursive they won't be able to read historical documents like the Declaration of Independence. But does learning cursive really make that easier? Image source: Flickr
Cursive is considered to grant three advantages to students: speed, comprehension, and fine motor skills. As the theory goes, when writers lift the pen from the page less frequently, they can write more words per minute, getting their thoughts on the page faster. The comprehension argument supposes students who cannot write cursive cannot read it, hindering them from understanding historical documents.
"But the real reason cursive is fading is that the arguments in favor of it are pretty weak," writes Vox news editor Libby Nelson. "They usually center on students being able to read the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (which were originally written in copperplate script, and are hard to decipher even for people who studied cursive in school) or on developing fine motor skills, which can also be cultivated in other ways."
As for speed, typing is significantly faster once mastered.
Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, argues that early education should supplant cursive with "cognitive automaticity" — that is, "the ability to make letters without conscious effort." She suggests that keyboards are excellent tools for such learning and grant additional benefits to students with poor handwriting and those with fine-motor disabilities. To back up her claims, she points to studies showing students are writing longer, more rhetorically complex essays than past generations, despite fewer writing in cursive.
"People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it's proof of the decline of civilization," writes Trubek, in a New York Times op-ed. "But if the goal of public education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting. [And] there seems to be no difference in benefits between printing and cursive."
The cursive quandary
Is cursive writing obsolete? Perhaps a better question is whether cursive is important to helping children communicate ideas clearly. Image source: PxHere
But does cursive offer more cognitive boons than print, or is it simply more pleasing to the eye? Here experts have struggled to make a definitive case, but there is some evidence to suggest that cursive may bestow developmental gains.
A study published in Language and Literacy found that cursive demonstrated improved students' spelling, text construction, and graphic-motor skills. Interestingly, study author Professor Isabelle Montésinos-Gelet noted that children were better off learning either print or cursive, as the print-cursive method demonstrated the worst results for students by limiting the acquisition of automatic motor skills.
It's worth pointing out that these findings aren't robust (yet). They can be contradictory, too. Dr. Berninger's "hybrid writers" idea seems in opposition to Montésinos-Gelet's argument against a joint approach. One of the reasons for this, as noted by Karin Harman James, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, Indiana University, is that it is difficult to find children whose educational backgrounds only differ in handwriting style.
"There is no conclusive evidence that there is a benefit for learning cursive for a child's cognitive development," she told Nautilus.
What are we to do then when it comes to schools' curricula? Scott Beers, an associate professor and chair of the master of education in literacy program at Seattle Pacific University, has a suggestion.
"I want to reframe the question," Beers writes. "Instead of asking which form of writing to teach, we should ask what we most want for our students as they learn to write. What's the end goal?"
For Beers, that end goal should be to help students express their ideas clearly. How they transcribe those ideas is less important than the ideas themselves. He argues that students need to learn to write by hand and develop handwriting fluency—whether that fluency come from print, cursive, or an idiosyncratic D'Nealian script.
"I don't think one form is 'better' than the other — research is thin and far from conclusive — but mastering two forms requires twice the time and effort, and is particularly challenging for those with writing difficulties," he adds.
In this light, Ohio and Louisiana's legislation is far too sweeping. It may be worth introducing students to cursive, and students who find it appealing can certainly master it, but requiring legible cursive by fifth grade—let alone mandating it until twelfth—says more about the legislative's desire to polish the patina off a cultural artifact than an understanding of child development.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.