Adventures in literacy

Someone wrote kindly to ask how my kids liked sleepaway camp. Basically, they loved it. They got to water ski and mountain bike. They faced down homesickness and had complete freedom over what to eat and were in a beautiful wooded setting. The Prophet is now taking archery lessons with 10 other future Katniss Everdeens. Camp is awesome!

Now we are transitioning to a new school year, and it is clear that you can say anything you want in my house as long as it is related to the Marvel Superhero Universe. We are working our way through a confusing litany of loud, interrelated movies. I need to go to the library and pick up the next one, whatever that is.

We are also reading the seventh and final Harry Potter book. It’s very good. No spoilers, please. Everyone here is technically on Harry’s side, but we really care about the more complicated and interesting characters–Luna, Neville, Snape, etc. I SAID NO SPOILERS.

Obviously, we take our literacy seriously. To this end, I have been making a nuisance of myself by investigating the state of cursive in my kids’ school. The state, it turns out, is confusing. You see, cursive is listed as a skill that students should be able to draw upon in grades 3-5 in the Ontario language curriculum. However, it is treated as “optional” by teachers, principals, the school board, and the provincial Ministry of Education. I know because I have spoken with all of them.

But wait, it gets more complicated. When I spoke to the principal, she explained that there are too many “mandatory” elements in the curriculum for teachers to be able to spend time on “optional” ones. Hmm, that makes it sound like it’s not even an option.

To make matters more confusing, the curriculum dates back to 2006 and has not been officially updated since then. It’s almost as if some people are trying to take cursive out of the curriculum without bothering to actually take it out of the curriculum.

The recent literature that I found seems to suggest that learning cursive helps the brain to develop and makes kids better writers. What literature, you ask? Why, this literature, as summarized below:

  1. Writing notes by hand has been shown to support better learning than taking notes on a keyboard.
    Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168.
  2. Other types of writing cannot be substituted for cursive, as far as the brain is concerned. Writing in cursive uses parts of the brain that are distinct from what you use when writing in print or when typing on a keyboard.
    Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Jones, J., Wolf, B. J., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., … & Apel, K. (2006). Early development of language by hand: Composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), 61-92.
    James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in neuroscience and education, 1(1), 32-42.
  3. Handwriting instruction results in better writing. Writing by hand has been linked to higher order writing tasks, such as word selection and the organization of ideas. When handwriting is automatic, the cognitive load of writing is reduced so that students can focus on composing their ideas.
    Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Swanson, H. L., Lovitt, D., Trivedi, P., Lin, S. J. C., … & Amtmann, D. (2010). Relationship of word-and sentence-level working memory to reading and writing in second, fourth, and sixth grade. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41(2), 179-193.
    Medwell, J., Strand, S., & Wray, D. (2009). The links between handwriting and composing for Y6 children. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(3), 329-344.
  4. Kids must achieve automaticity, or fluency, in basic skills before they can go on to higher order thinking skills. If they do not do this, their working memory will be burdened with basic skills.  Achieving automaticity requires direct instruction and supervised practice.
    Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2016). A comprehensive meta-analysis of handwriting instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 28(2), 225-265.
  5. Cursive writing has noticeable benefits for people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
    Berninger, V., Wolf, B., (2009) Teaching students with dyslexia and dysgraphia: Lessons from teaching and science.  Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, Publishing Co.
    Montgomery, D. (2012). The contribution of handwriting and spelling remediation to overcoming dyslexia. In Dyslexia-A Comprehensive and International Approach. InTech. Available at

My dear husband is concerned that I may turn into some back-to-basics nutcase. “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?” he asks. More important than whether my children’s school teaches reading and writing? No, not really. Sure, there are other important things to worry about, but more important?