MCLEAN, VIRGINIA - As recently as a half-century ago, young American students would spend many lessons writing curved loops and diagonal lines, as they learned how to write in cursive. Over the years, though, computer keyboards and voice to text programs have replaced pens and pencils, and made handwriting -- especially cursive -- less relevant.
But it hasn't disappeared. St. Luke Catholic School in McLean, Virginia, still teaches cursive. Several times a week, students work on their handwriting skills, clutching their pencils and pens as they practice forming neat loops and curls.
Teacher Grace O’Connor says eventually, all of them will have a style all their own. “The great thing about cursive is everyone has his own little spin to it, like, you know how to form your letters, but as you get older you, kind of, develop your own flow to your cursive writing, and it’s yours,” she says. “You can take ownership of it, which is really great."
Cursive engages multiple senses
Cursive handwriting is emerging as a learning tool for students with dyslexia, a disorder that makes it difficult to read or interpret letters, words and other symbols.
Thirteen-year-old Joseph was diagnosed with dyslexia four years ago, when he was in third grade. “It was hard,” he recalls. “At first, I hadn’t known anything about it. So, I thought it was like the end of the world. So, I was, like, scared, but I had also known that eventually there would be a way for me to get past it.”
He's "getting past it" with help from therapist Deborah Spear. She visits Joseph’s school several times a week for extra one-on-one practice sessions on cursive writing.
Spear says practicing handwriting, especially cursive, helps these kids become better readers. The distinct curves and shapes are more likely to be retained in memory.
“We always teach the students that their hands will help them read,” she adds. “They’re very aware they learn through all of their senses. So, we always start with sky writing.”
For that, the students write a letter in the air with their fingers and name the letter at the exact same time they are writing it.
“We’re using the large shoulder muscle at that point,” Spear explains. “Then, we start with very large papers sometimes. So, we start to establish the gross motor movement before we let them hold the pencil, and they have to hold the pencil correctly. The other piece of it is that every handwriting letter is integrated into the letter’s name and that letter’s sound.”
In addition to handwriting, Spear finds that spelling is a useful learning tool.
“So, when their spelling is smooth, they are integrating that sense in breaking a word down, then they’re able to read it back after they’ve been able to break it down,” she adds.
Connecting the letters on paper helps students see each letter more distinctly, a benefit Spear says they don't get from typing.
“Even if you’re able to touch type, just waggling the fingers is not the same as engaging the whole muscle of the arm in handwriting. When you wiggle your fingers, you’re not really differentiating between a 'b' and a 'd', for example, or an 'm' and an 'n'. But when you’re handwriting, you’re making that distinction.”
Joseph says that’s exactly how practicing handwriting helped him read better and faster.
“When I do the handwriting motions, it’s like my hand remembers it,” he explains. "So, my brain starts remembering the letters and the words. Then, when I see these words, I remember the words when I’m reading. So, that helped a lot.”
Better writers, better students
Teacher Grace O’Connor says the extra handwriting practice helped the students gain confidence and perform better in class.
“I feel like they have a heightened sense of pride at their work from getting this extra help because it’s allowing them the opportunity to use strategies they’re learning one-on-one. So, they can be more confident in the classroom and working with the whole group on cursive writing.”
St. Luke staffer Kevin Cyrown says learning to write in cursive can help all students, not only dyslexic ones.
“A lot of memory issues are involved in it,” he says. “So, in order for a student to do well in a test or just remember things in general, it’s really important for them to write down. So I hope we’ll never lose it.”
Lessons for life, no matter how much they will use cursive handwriting in the years to come.