Saturday, June 07, 2014

Still on the trail of cursive's benefits

My interest in the merits (or not) of cursive writing prompted me to follow up Ed Yong’s recent tweet about an article on handwriting in the New York Times. It is by Maria Konnikova, and it is interesting. But I am particularly struck by this paragraph:
“Dr. Berninger goes so far as to suggest that cursive writing may train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not, and some researchers argue that it may even be a path to treating dyslexia. A 2012 review suggests that cursive may be particularly effective for individuals with developmental dysgraphia — motor-control difficulties in forming letters — and that it may aid in preventing the reversal and inversion of letters.”

Here at least seems to be a concrete claim of the supposed cognitive benefits of cursive, in comparison to print handwriting. OK, so Dr Berninger’s claim is totally unsubstantiated here, and I’ll have to live with that. And this claim that cursive might be particularly useful for working with dyslexia and dysgraphia is one I’ve heard previously and seems plausible – it could perhaps offer a valid reason to teach cursive handwriting in preference to manuscript from the outset (not sequentially). But I’d like to see what that 2012 review says about this. So I follow the link.

It leads me to what appears to be a book chapter: “The contribution of handwriting and spelling remediation to overcoming dyslexia”, by Diane Montgomery. She is reporting on a study that used an approach called the Cognitive Process Strategies for Spelling (CPSS) to try to help pupils with identified spelling difficulties, who were in general diagnosed as dyslexics. This method involves, among many other things, teaching these children cursive alone. So Montgomery’s work in itself doesn’t offer any evidence for the superiority of cursive over other handwriting styles in this context – cursive is just accepted here as a ‘given’.

But she does finally explain why cursive is a part of CPSS, in a section titled “Why cursive in remedial work is important”. Here the author claims that “Experiments in teaching cursive from the outset have taken place in a number of LEAs [local education authorities] and have proved highly successful in achieving writing targets earlier and for a larger number of children.” Aha. And the evidence? Two studies are cited, one from 1990, one from 1991. One is apparently a local study in Kingston-upon-Thames. Both are in journals that are extremely hard to access – even the British Library doesn’t seem to keep them. So now I’m losing the trail... But let’s remind ourselves where we are on it. The CPSS method for helping dyslexic children uses cursive because advantages for it have been claimed in some studies almost 25 years ago on non-dyslexic cohorts.

Onward. Montgomery says that other dyslexia programmes base their remediation on cursive. She lists the reasons why that is so, but none of the claims (e.g “spaces between letters and between words is orderly and automatic”) is backed up with citations showing that these actually confer advantages.

There is, however, one such documented claim in her piece. “Ziviani and Watson-Will (1998) found that cursive script appeared to facilitate writing speed.” Now that’s interesting – this is of course the claim made by many people when they defend cursive, so I was delighted to find an assertion that there’s real evidence for it. Well, I could at least get hold of this paper, and so I checked it out. And you know what? It doesn’t show that at all. This statement is totally, shockingly false. Ziviani and Watson-Will were interested in the effects of the introduction of a new cursive style into Australian schools, replacing “the previous print and cursive styles”. How well do the children taught this way fare in terms of speed and legibility? The authors don’t actually conduct tests that compare a cohort trained the old way with one trained the new way. They are just concerned with how, for those trained the new way, speed affects legibility. So it’s a slightly odd study that doesn’t really address the question it poses at the outset. What it does do is to show that there is a weak inverse correlation between speed and legibility for the kids who learnt the new cursive style. Not at all surprising, of course – but there is not the slightest indication in this paper that cursive (of any kind) improves speed relative to manuscript/print style (of any kind).

There’s another relevant reference in Montgomery’s paper that I can get. She says “The research of Early (1976) advocated the exclusive use of cursive from the beginning.” Hmm, I wonder why? So I look it up. It compares two groups of children from two different American schools, one with 21 pupils, the other with 27. One of them was taught cursive from the outset, the other was taught the traditional way of manuscript first and then cursive. The results suggested, weakly, that exclusive teaching of cursive produced fewer letter reversals (say, b/d) and fewer transpositions (say, “first/frist”). But the authors acknowledged that the sample size was tiny (and no doubt they were mindful also that the experimental and control groups were not “identically prepared”). As a result, they said, “We in no way wish to offer the present data as documenting proof of the superiority of cursive over manuscript writing.” Would you have got that impression from Montgomery?

So now I’m really wondering what I’d find in those elusive 1990/1991 studies. At this point it doesn’t look good.

What, then, is going on here? Montgomery says that “custom and practice or ‘teaching wisdom’ is very hard to change and extremely rigid attitudes are frequently found against cursive.” I agree with the first point entirely – but in my experience so far, the rigid attitudes are in favour of cursive. And on the evidence here, advocacy for cursive seems to be made more on the basis of an existing conviction than out of respect for the evidence.

Ironically perhaps, I suspect that Early is nevertheless right. For most children, it won’t make an awful lot of difference whether they are taught cursive or manuscript – but they will find writing a fair bit easier at first if they are taught only one or the other. There does seem to be some slight indication that cursive might help with some particular spelling/writing problems, such as letter reversals and transpositions, though I’d like to see far better evidence for that. In that case, one could argue that the balance tips slightly in favour of cursive, simply for the sake of children with dyslexia and other dysgraphic problems. And I have the impression that in this case, a cursive-like italic style might be the best, rather than anything too loopy.

But if that were to be done, it would be good to be clear about the reasons. We are not saying that there’s anything in it for normal learners. And we really must drop the pathetic, patronising and pernicious habit of telling children that cursive is “grown-up” writing, infantilizing those who find it hard. If they learnt it from the outset, they would understand that it is just a way of writing – nothing more or less.

There is clearly still a lot of mythology, and propagating of misinformation, in this area. Given its importance to educational development, that’s troubling.


Aaron Wolf said...

The biggest take-away by far: Copyright and proprietary journals have been trashing the scientific process for decades. This is clearly just one example of a dysfunctional system.

Just imagine the possibilities if not only could anyone actually access articles about supposed research, but anyone who bothered to make sense of it could actually edit the crappy writing and make republish the same articles with better sentence structure and clearer wordings…

Nan jay Barchowsky said...

Hmmmm, mention of reversals: in my long experience with italic instruction I have never encountered reversals of 'b' and 'd,'or any other letters or numerals.

Jessy Ryder said...

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