Learning to write

Handwriting – teaching in the light of neurosciences

by Nicole Duprat, France

In Finnish schools, cursive handwriting was abolished by a government decision since the beginning of the school year 2016. However, learning of print writing will be maintained. In the US, already 45 of the 50 federal states replaced cursive handwriting by print since autumn 2014.
In Switzerland, Geneva had already decided in 2000 in favour of writing lessons exclusively in print writing. However, the canton abandoned it in 2002. Since then, cursive handwriting was taught again, because the gaps in print writing caused the children problems. Whereas in cursive handwriting the whole word is readily identifiable.
Another argument in favour of cursive handwriting is the kinesthetic memory: a single swing allows one syllable to be written in one move. For example, the pronoun “elle” [= she] can be formed with a single movement thus enabling the hand to “remember” the double “l”.
The following comparison shows the differences between print and cursive handwriting.

Print writing

Print writing reproduces the typographical letters. Its distribution in the 20th century is attributed to the calligrapher and typesetter Edward Johnston (1872-1944). It has not been developed to be written by hand. It is more impersonal than cursive handwriting.
The line of movement is less demanding than with cursive handwriting, the speed of writing is slowed down due to the frequent start and stop of the writing instrument since each letter is performed separately from the other. One starts with the hand movement, but after each letter one must stop. So, writing loses its swing. Print writing slows writing down and makes it difficult to conceive the word as a whole.
The children’s biggest problem when learning print writing, i.e. when learning to write a text in single letters, is to handle the gaps. Where does the word begin and where does it end? This is often not clear. For example, on the one hand there is the gap between the words, on the other hand there is the gap between the letters, the beginnings and the directions must be redefined for each letter.

Cursive writing

Cursive writing, in French “écriture cursive”, “écriture en lettres attachées”, “écriture liée”, or “écriture courante”, is named cursive or longhand in English. It dates back to the early Roman times and in the West, it was introduced in the 14th century. It is traditionally regarded as the most important script, the “everyday script”.
Its main characteristic is that it can be written fast. The writing instrument glides over the sheet, connecting the letters, only stopping between the words, thus maintaining the flow of the thoughts. Research shows that one writes faster with cursive writing than with print writing. Efficiency in movement is only achieved after having learned to form letters and words in a fluid, dynamic movement.
The ordering element with print writing is the form of the letter; with cursive writing it is the movement. Scientists have clearly shown that the handwriting movement is of central importance both for learning and for remembering the written language.
In a study (2005), Velay and Longcamp could show that the motor area of the brain, which is affected when you write letters by hand, is equally activated when you recognise the letters while reading. This memory track seems to be important so as to strengthen the knowledge of the letters both in reading and in writing.
Longcamp, Zerbato and Velay (2005) compared two groups of primary school students. One group learned to write the letters by hand, the other on the keyboard. It turned out that the students who had learned handwriting recognised the letters better than the others.

Training of the fine motor skills

Conjoined writing style is a training of the fine motor skills, which makes it possible to acquire a flow of writing. At the age of nine or ten years, the child develops his personal handwriting, gains in ease and speed in writing.
Cursive writing facilitates memorising orthography, as it is memorised in both the kinesthetic and the visual memory. The word is more easily recognised as a lexical unity, if it is clearly identifiable and thus sticks in the memory as a whole, namely as letters connected with each other.
In learning the written language, therefore, the sensoimotoric as well as the kinesthetic memory and the visual memory are involved. With the help of imaging techniques of the brain it was possible to show that the movement in learning how to write is extremely important for learning how to read. In addition, you can remember notes that you have written by hand much better, than those that you have generated letter-by-letter on a keyboard.
Laura Dinehart, of the International University of Florida, writes: “There is a strong link between the early mastery of writing and school success.” Writing and the ability to control this process yourself allow to control one’s own feelings and to remember the work done. All these are skills that are of great use to the success in school.
Dinehart also notes that “the mastery of calligraphy seems to have an incomparable effect on the development of the child.”
Calligraphy – Greek kailos = beautiful and graphein = to write means literally “the beautiful writing”, that is, the art of beautifully shaping the individual letters of writing. By learning the calligraphy the joy in beauty, the senses for diligence, concentration and precision, order and harmony, the wealth of cultural heritage are passed on. With the material used, the smell of colours and inks, writing becomes an art, a journey through the centuries.

A beautiful pen, a quality ink, velvety soft paper, what a pleasure!

During a calligraphy workshop, where my students learned the art of medieval miniature, I could see the joy that they experienced in a quiet, concentrated atmosphere, while shaping the first letter of their first name on a small card in black letter. With the decorations, the squiggles, the precise movement and an aesthetic sense for the form, they discovered a further possibility to write their first names beautifully.
The quality of the writing is part of communication
A piece of paper will remain a preferred document for written communication for a long time. For the pleasure of the eyes and the spirit, it will retain its value. Thereby the quality of the writing is part of the communication.
It is only when the child has learned to write correctly, when it can hold his pen correctly, when it has mastered the spatial distances (dimension and proportion of the letters, respecting the lines, etc.), it is able to consider what it writes. Otherwise it needs all its attention to look for the right way on the paper with the pen.
Top priority for school and parents’ home must be to consistently promote handwriting again. The neurosciences have proved their importance for reading.     •

Bibliographic references
Velay, J.-L .; Longcamp, M. Clavier ou stylo comment écrire? In: Cerveau & Psycho no 11, 2005
Bauerlein, Valerie. The new script for teaching writing is no script at all. The Wall Street Journal du 30/1/13
Ecriture liée, du mouvement global au geste fin, publication du Département de l’Enseignement public de Genève, 2002
Larcher, Jean. La calligraphie occidentale: sa pertinence dans la société contemporaine de 1906 à nos jours. In: Communication et langage, vol. 93, 1992
VNI VousNousIls, e-mag de l’éducation. Ecriture cursive: en 2016, la Finlande privilégiera le clavier à l’école, 12/8/15
Dinehart, Laura. Good handwriting and good grades: FIU researcher finds new link. In: FIU Magazine, Florida International University (FIU), 18.1.12
(Translation Current Concerns)

Children who can not write anymore

“Between 10 and 30% of primary school pupils have difficulties in writing, according to studies from several countries. – The many worksheets and the lack of exercise are to blame for it. [...]
Blotted notebooks, unshapely letters, and constantly the same remarks of the teachers: ‘illegible’, ‘too slowly’, ‘inaccurately’. At the end of 1st grade, 30% of the pupils are not able to write a readable text. According to a Belgian study of 2016 with 2.507 pupils, they have not learned to shape the letters and the direction of writing. According to three studies from Quebec, Israel and the Netherlands, conducted between 2000 and 2016, between 10 and 30% of the primary school pupils have writing problems due to ‘graphomotoric’ difficulties. [...]
Parents’ concerns are not unfounded, as advances in learning reading and orthography are closely linked to the learning of writing.
The researcher Natalie Lavoie describes this in her book, published 2016, “Le Geste graphique au début de l’école primaire [Learning the Scripture at the Beginning of the Primary School] as follows: ‘The accomplishments in the spelling do not only depend on the knowledge of the words or the writing style of the children, but also on their level in the mastery of the writing itself [...]. The acquisition of a fluid and automatic writing movement allows them to set free cognitive resources and attention to other aspects of writing. [...]’
But how to explain the ‘explosive spreading’ of unskilled writings, as criticized by some of the teachers? ‘Many

Connection between writing and thinking is not considered

“What complete misjudging of the connection between writing and thinking! As if thoughts were clearly arranged in the head and had only to be made accessible to others by means of writing. Even with superb writers it does not work like this, how should it do with children. Thoughts are brought into a clear structure just by oral and written utterances. Writing is a mental sewage plant. When writing down, words, sentences, thoughts are manually arranged, objectified, and fixed on a surface. Writing compels to dwell upon them. Writing is a gesture of devotion. A child learning this devotion has to concentrate like never before motoric skills and attention with considerable endurance, on one point: the tip of a pen. Regular, continuous writing movements demand a high level of coordination and concentration during the phase of learning them. Writing takes apart and puts together at the same time. It creates a feeling for the relationship between the parts and the whole. Or in Nietzsche’s words: “Our writing equipment takes part in forming our thoughts”.

Source: Christoph Türcke, “Learning without a teacher – Abysses of new learning culture“, Current Concerns No. 3/4, 6 February 2017 (http://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/numbers/2017/no-34-6-february-2017/learning-without-a-teacher.html)