The following article appears in Alabama Waldorf School’s November 2013 school newsletter, the AWS Awareness. It was written by our Administrator, Lisa Grupe, Ph.D.
Last month, I was subbing for the Spanish teacher in the combined 4th and 5th grade class. Unable to teach immersion-style as Waldorf foreign language teachers do, I decided to have the students write letters to Señor Spezzini about the things they liked and disliked: “Me gusta _______. No me gusta ___________.” Before they started writing they asked me, (or, shall I say, they whined to me), “Do we have to write in cursive?” A teachable moment was upon me. “Of course!” I said. “Cursive helps you to keep your thought processes going because the letters are joined just like your thoughts are!” I mimed printing, exaggerating the stop-and-go jerking motion of picking up your pencil each time you write a letter. “You don’t want to tell Señor Spezzini, ‘N-o…m-e…g-u-s-t-o…’” and slowly spoke each sound of the phrase “I don’t like” in Spanish. The children laughed and I continued, this time miming the fluid, graceful motion of cursive handwriting. “You want to be able to say, ‘No me gusta los encurtidos’, don’t you?” This phrase I spoke in a normal voice, the words flowing just as they do when written on the page in cursive.
My example really seemed to make sense to them, and I was gratified to see formerly stubborn printers trying their hand at cursive. “Wow, this is easier than I thought,” I heard.
That the children were embracing such a task of will was no small triumph in these times of keyboarding and haptics/touch-screen technology.
Waldorf education has long touted the relationship between the hand and the brain. Our curriculum understands that it’s what the hand does that “lights up” the brain (on a scan) instead of the reverse. One of the unique features of Waldorf education is how often the opportunities arise for dual hemisphere brain experience and learning: clapping games in Preschool, knitting, playing a musical instrument, and movement games in the Grades. An activity that requires both the left and right hemispheres of the brain builds the collection of fibers between them, the corpus callosum. This results in greater communication between the visual/musical side of the brain and the mathematical/logical side of the brain.
Scientists are seeing that learning cursive helps to train the brain for optimal efficiency; it integrates sensation, movement control, and thinking. Imaging studies show that multiple areas of the brain light up during a cursive learning session, areas that are not involved in keyboarding or touchscreen (haptics). A 2013 study of the brain scans of pre-literate 5-year-olds after different forms of letter-learning showed that the brain’s linked “reading circuit” was only activated during handwriting — not during typing — and more so when writing letters in a meaningful context vs. writing them as a non-cognitive drawing exercise.
When I was teaching, I used The Writing Road to Reading for our writing curriculum because my graduate studies in Cognition had taught me that the learning of writing scaffolds the development of reading. My experience in the classroom further showed this to be true. In addition, learning the cursive hand and engaging in penmanship strengthens fine motor skills and helps lengthen attention span and improve focus.
The 4th and 5th grade students I observed while substituting for the Spanish teacher bore out the research finding that cursive writing engages them in the assignment and also serves as a reflection of their personal style.
This was very apparent when one student gleefully wrote, “Me gusta los unicornios!”
–James, K.H. and Atwood, T.P. (2009).The role of sensorimotor learning in the perception of letter-like forms: Tracking the causes of neural specialization for letters. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 26 (1), 91-100.
–James, K.H. and Engelhardt, L. (2013). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Article in press. Click here for reference to this article in Psychology Today.
–Waldorf Today, June 2013.
–Waldorf Today, July 2011