Printing, cursive, keyboarding: What's the difference when it comes to learning?
Indiana University neuroscientist Karin Harman James was involved at both a state and national level this week in raising awareness about the role of handwriting in the learning process. Interest in her research in this area has gained attention as states and schools nationwide debate whether handwriting instruction, particularly cursive, still fits within the curriculum.
On Wednesday, Jan. 25, James testified before the Indiana Senate Committee on Education and Career Development regarding Senate Bill 83, which would require public school corporations to include cursive handwriting instruction in their curricula. The committee ultimately approved the legislation. On Monday, Jan. 23, she participated in a national summit in Washington, D.C., called to examine the issue of handwriting and the learning process. The first-such meeting, "Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit," involved educators and researchers from across the country and was held in response to the growing debate.
On Wednesday, James gave a brief presentation about her research, which used brain imaging technology to document how significant changes in the brain occur depending on whether preschool-age children learn letters by printing or typing.
"I'm interested in how the brains of children change as they learn in different ways," James said. "This can give us an idea about how children develop and help us understand how they learn different things. For example, I have found that the brains of children change when they learn letters by printing them, as opposed to typing them. When children learn their letters through visual practice, typing, or hearing, they do not show the benefits that are gained in pre-reading skills that happen after printing letters. In practical terms, this means that reading is related to writing in a very important way, and that for children to have every advantage when they begin to read, they should have a lot of practice in fine motor skills such as printing letters. "
Her preliminary research involving cursive writing found that college students remembered information better one week later when they transcribed a paragraph in cursive, compared to printing it or using a keyboard.
She is quick to note, however, that scientists have not determined the benefits of teaching or not teaching cursive. This was a key part of Monday's summit, the understanding that more research is needed before the impact of teaching or not teaching cursive can be determined.
In recent years, most states in the U.S. have adopted Common Core State Standards, a set of academic standards that suggests students should be able to type before they enter middle school but leaves it up to the states whether to teach cursive. As a result, many schools have moved away from teaching cursive. The standards, adopted by Indiana in 2010, were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to provide a framework for what students should know by the time they graduate from high school.
"I am concerned that policy is made regardless of what the scientific research indicates," James said. "Educators are trying to pay attention to the research and that is good. At the senate committee, the bill was passed 10-0. Now it proceeds to the house. I am hoping that the bill will encourage teachers to continue to teach printing in the early elementary grades as well as cursive in the later grades.
Monday's summit was sponsored by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of educational materials, in partnership with the American Association of School Administrators.