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Cursive Handwriting: How Important Is It?

Many of us would answer: “Very important!” While Montessorians have deliberated for years whether children should learn to write first in cursive or print, we’ve all thought cursive was an essential skill. Now there is a lively debate occurring in the field of education about whether, in this age of technology, cursive handwriting is necessary at all.

Cursive is not required by the national educational Common Core Standards. Many states across the country are removing or reducing cursive instruction from the curriculum while only a few states have deliberated and decided to keep it.

What’s the best way to respond when parents ask why handwriting is a key component of the Montessori environment? Montessori discovered the importance of learning through movement and the senses. Research corroborates the vital hand/brain connection, proving that new pathways in the brain develop as children use their hands to explore and interact with the world. Of course it doesn’t need to be an either/or decision: children can be computer literate and learn cursive.

Research Shows the Value of Learning Cursive

Fascinating new research points out the benefits of cursive writing for cognitive development. One study concluded that elementary students need at least “15 minutes of handwriting daily for cognitive, writing and motor skills and reading comprehension improvement.” A recent article in Psychology Today cited research which shows that:

  • Students “wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.” This study included second, fourth, and sixth graders.
  • “Cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual (and) tactile information, and fine motor dexterity.”
  • The regions of the brain that are activated during reading were “activated during hand writing, but not during typing.”

Learning to Write: Cursive or Print?

“Written language can be acquired more easily by children of four years than by those of six. While children of six usually need at least two years to learn how to write, children of four years learn this second language within a few months.”
—Maria Montessori

Observers of Montessori schools are often astonished by the beautiful cursive hand of four-and five-year-old children. Montessori noted that the straight and oblique lines of printing were more difficult for children to form than cursive. The uninterrupted movements of the hand may make cursive letters easier for children to form, and for this reason, some Montessori primary classrooms introduce children to cursive sandpaper letters first. Other Montessori schools wait to teach cursive to lower elementary students.

Some non-Montessori reading experts have begun teaching cursive before printing, because they find that cursive instruction improves literacy outcomes for many students and that “the connections between letters required in cursive writing may reduce letter reversals.”

Whether we begin by teaching print or cursive, it’s clear that it is a very different process to touch a key and see a letter appear on a screen, than it is to develop the skills and brain/hand connections necessary to be able to write that letter yourself.

“We directly prepare the child, not only for writing, but also for penmanship, paying attention to the beauty of form (having the children touch the letters in script form)…”
—Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method

In the Montessori primary classroom, children trace the Sandpaper Letters with their fingers and often draw letters in a sand tray or on an easel or chalkboard. As they progress, children can copy onto paper the words and sentences they build with the Movable Alphabet.

In the 1950s, my aunt in Nebraska had never heard of Montessori. Searching for a way to help her struggling students form letters, she poured sandy cat litter into a box and encouraged the children to draw letters with their fingers in this material. They loved it!

Handwriting across the curriculum is encouraged in the Montessori classroom. Older children write their own poems, stories, and research reports. One of the best ways for children to learn geography, history, science, and even math, is to work with the materials and write about it (with a pencil!)

Older children are also fascinated with learning to write with a quill pen or Chinese calligraphy brush. Teaching elementary-age children different scripts, such as italics, and showing them illuminated manuscripts with decorated capital letters can inspire students to view handwriting as an art form. Teachers have reported that their students’ own cursive writing improved after working with calligraphy pens and different scripts.

“We Are Writers!”

I once had the pleasure of teaching at a Montessori school in an extremely diverse community where over 30 languages were spoken. One day during recess, two eight-year-old boys from my class – one whose mother tongue was Tagalog and the other whose first language was Mandarin – were perched at the top of the jungle gym waving sticks in the air and tapping them on the highest bar with great enthusiasm.

They shouted to me: “Guess who we are? Guess who we are? ”

Expecting that they were pretending to be gun-wielding superheroes, I walked over to get a better look. Before I could speak, they called out: “We are writers! And we are writing the next Goosebumps book.” (At that time Goosebumps books were as popular as Harry Potter.)

Again the boys flourished their sticks and now I could clearly see their proud faces, fingers holding their sticks in the proper pencil grip, the cursive writing flowing across the top of the monkey bars.

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