This month, the New York Times published a debate among four experts on the future and continued importance of teaching students to write in cursive. Each side made straight-forward, if not obvious, points in their discussion. Opponents of cursive writing highlighted its obsolescence in the computer age while advocates mentioned its increased efficiency and celebrated the beautiful handwritten cursive of old letters.
One of the points raised by one of the debaters, Suzanne Baruch Asherson, is that cursive makes people smarter. For one, Asherson asserts “cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.” Asherson offers no citation to support this claim and from my cursory search on Google Scholar, I didn’t find any articles claiming this effect. Asherson attempts to bolster her claim by citing a study by College Board that “students who wrote in cursive for the essay portion scored higher than those who printed.” Unfortunately for Asherson’s case, the study cited does not offer support for cursive handwriting for at least the following two reasons:
- Misrepresentation of the study. The study actually concludes that cursive handwriting results in “no practical difference in the mean score.” Essays written in cursive received an average score of 7.2 (out of 12) while printed essays had a 7.0 average. This 0.2 difference is neither statistically or practically (“economically”) significant.
- Correlation ≠ Causation. With good reason, the College Board study selects its language very carefully, deliberately referring to correlations as opposed to causation. Several additional factors might explain the slightly positive relationship between cursive and essay scores. Students that received strong instruction in cursive (as indicated by the students’ willingness to continue to use it) are likely to have received strong instruction in other subjects as well.
These problems caution us against immediately accepting knowledge claims in print, even when a large, legitimate study is cited.