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Why Learning Cursive is Good for Kids with Learning Disabilities

When my daughter began third grade, her teacher pulled me aside and told me that although my daughter’s previous teacher had told her that my child was very bright, that she “just didn’t see it.” As I wrapped my brain around her lack of tact, she went on to tell me that she had never seen such terrible handwriting and that she suspected a learning disability.

My daughter was one of the last of the many generations that learned cursive in third grade, and for some mysterious reason, she really took to it. Her legibility improved, she stopped reversing letters, and her random capitalization ceased. She continued to be laboriously slow, but it was a day of vindication when the teacher had my daughter call to let me know that she had received the highest marks in the entire school on the third grade state writing assessment.

2008.11.12 - The letter

Today, as a teacher of reading and writing, I know some of the reasons that her handwriting improved when she began to write in cursive.

Cursive is written with specific formation that discourages reversals. The b and d, and p and q are formed very differently in cursive, giving the brain a chance to learn that although the letters have commonalities, they are different letters. It is also much harder to insert random capitalizations in the middle of words when writing in cursive. This benefits students with dyslexia and dysgraphia, since many struggle beyond the developmentally appropriate time period for reversals and have difficulty distinguishing lower and upper case letters.

Beyond the difference in formation, the action of writing in cursive is a kinesthetic activity, engaging a variety of muscles. Betty Scheffield, Fellow of the Orton Gillingham Academy, wrote in Handwriting: A Neglected Cornerstone of Literacy in the Annals of Dyslexia Vol. 46, that the kinesthetic channel is the “earliest, strongest, and most reliable memory channel.” The arm should be loose from the shoulder, encouraging the large muscles in the arms to develop muscle memory of the form. Meanwhile, the hands and fingers grow stronger and have more stamina for longer writing sessions.  This large and small motor activity along with the touch of the fingers to the pencil, the scratch of the tip of the writing implement on the paper and the hand-eye coordination send messages to the brain and fire up synapses, which in turn is associated with executive functioning, memory and understanding. The motion from one letter to the next encourages left to right direction and aids in fluent reading.

The New York Times article What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades by Maria Konnikova, asserts that students learn to read faster, remember more, and come up with more ideas when writing by hand. Konnokova writes of a 2012 study conducted by Dr. Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, which suggests that the effort of writing engages the motor pathways in the brain. Students who write efficiently are better able to tap into higher level thinking and written expression according to Betty Scheffield. It also follows that they are better able to be more creative and have fun with writing if the physical act of writing is not bogging them down.

According to an article by Valerie Hotchkins, Cursive is an endangered Species, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, cursive improves language fluency, memory, and physical coordination, as well as socialization. In addition, notes taken by hand are more likely to be remembered and understood than those typed on a keyboard and students who write in cursive are able to write faster than those who write in manuscript.

If there is a student with a learning disability is out there that doesn’t struggle with executive functioning, I haven’t met them. The two seem to go hand-in-hand. Cursive handwriting teaches this skill because the student is constantly thinking ahead and planning the next movement of the pen in order to properly form each letter and connect it to the following letter.

Some students (and parents) balk at learning cursive, but I encourage it for any students past third grade. It is important to keep the practice brief, laid back and fun. Most students enjoy it—even the ones that you might expect to hate it. Allow them to use colored markers and encourage them to just put a cross through mistakes and keep going; they do not waste time on erasing mistakes and you have a record of trouble spots to reteach. Practice with big swooping motions making oversized writing on a white board or an outside wall with a wet paintbrush. Write out favorite quotations or sayings and display them. Students tend to take great pride in their work and many view it is a grown-up thing to do and are excited to join the cursive club.

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