Dear Dr. Linda,
Our fifth-grade son’s handwriting is horrible. We can’t read a word he writes, not even on homework assignments. He can’t read them either once he’s home. He only prints, and when he does, it looks like a chicken walked across the page. The school psychologist told us that he has dysgraphia, a writing disorder. She recommended that he be classified with a learning disability and be allowed to take notes on his laptop and use the computer to write all his papers. This means he’s never going to learn cursive, even though I think our school doesn’t teach it anymore anyway. Aren’t we doing him a great injustice not having him learn to write so people can read it? How’s he going to sign his name? Do you have any suggestions? Caroline
I happen to agree with you. Many teachers also agree with you. In fact, research has shown that students who write notes in cursive vs. printing and typing do better on tests and remember the material longer. Also, students like your son who have dysgraphia, seem to write neater and spell better when they write in cursive.
Recently, in my tutoring practice, I introduced cursive writing to a third grader and a seventh grader, both of which had severe dysgraphia. Not only did their handwriting improve and become more readable, but they were able to create stories and complete homework with greater ease. In both cases, their teachers picked up on it and encouraged them to write in cursive. Once it became second nature to them, their handwriting issues were no longer that much of an issue.
What happened to these two children shouldn’t be a surprise. What researchers have found is that, “Both tracking and movement control require much more engagement of neural resources in producing cursive or related handwriting methods than in hand printing, because the movements are more complex and nuanced. Thus, learning cursive is a much greater neural activator, which in turn must engage much more neural circuitry than the less demanding printing.” Psychology Today, February 2015
In other words, writing in cursive engages more parts of the brain. It’s also easier for the dysgraphic child because each word is a unit unto itself—no picking up and putting down the writing instrument for each letter. This way the child doesn’t have to remember separate strokes which means fewer reversals. By learning cursive, our children will also be able to read cursive, too. Think of how many of our old documents are in cursive—for example, The Declaration of Independence.
But, the most important finding is that cursive writing, even printing, engages more neural paths than keyboarding. Because of that, children with dyslexia, a reading disability, also seem to do better when they learn to write in cursive. In fact, years and years ago, Anna Gillingham, one of the founders of the Orton-Gillingham methodology widely used to help dyslexic readers, advocated teaching cursive from the beginning of first grade.
With this said, many argue that children with dysgraphia and dyslexia are better off not having to write at all and only use computers. Many teachers agree with this view. “Most teachers would agree that, aside from extended time, having access to a computer and all of its possibilities is probably the most significant accommodation a dyslexic student can leverage to improve academic performance.” Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 2016. There is no getting around the fact, that the keyboard has opened up the world for dysgraphic and dyslexic children and adults.
In short, I recommend that you teach your son both cursive writing and eventually keyboarding. This way he’ll have the best of both worlds.