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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.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>