Cursive Handwriting Boosts Brain Memory

Can the simple act of taking notes by hand increase a student’s retention of lesson content? Researchers in the field of neuroscience have found increasing evidence that the answer is yes. As schools around the globe focus on building students’ keyboarding skills to meet the demands of the digital age, neuroscientists are investigating the impact of this shift away from explicitly taught handwriting. What they have discovered, and what they have confirmed by a large body of evidence-based research, is a link between the use of cursive and a measurable effect on memory. 

Consistently in alignment with research-based science, Windward makes handwriting a pillar of its language arts curriculum. As with all subject areas at Windward, handwriting instruction is language-based, sequential, and highly structured. This begins in the lower schools with writing instruction of printed letters and then moves to cursive instruction in third grade. Using the PAF cursive and handwriting program, language arts faculty integrate the motor patterns of cursive with the “language of cursive,” or explicit verbal instructions for forming each letter. 

Active Writing Hooks the Brain 

A recent article in ScienceNewsforStudents asserts that writing activates areas of the brain that typing does not, which “‘gives the brain more hooks to hang [one’s] memories on.’” When a student uses a keyboard to take notes, they are limited by the same motion used to type each letter. In contrast, when students write, they need to synthesize both the visual memories of letter shapes and the motion their hand makes to form letters. 

Critical Thinking Skills Also Benefit from Handwriting 

It also stimulates students’ critical thinking skills, as they prioritize which information to jot down and how to organize it visually in a way that makes sense, including highlighting certain words or phrases, underlining important text, drawing arrows to connect ideas, and so on.  
“Additional research reveals that students write faster, compose more, and express themselves more comprehensively when essays are written by hand rather than typed on a keyboard” (Hochman & MacDermott-Duffy, 2015). A small study conducted in Norway measured participants’ brain waves using EEG as they conducted note-taking tasks, first as they wrote notes by hand and then as they typed them. In all cases, writing lit up areas of the brain that typing did not. Specifically, there was increased brain activity in memory areas, learning areas, and language areas. 

Cursive + Keyboarding = Valuable Tools for Windward Students 

By pursuing cursive fluency along with keyboarding instruction, which begins in the fourth grade and continues through ninth grade, Windward students gain a valuable set of tools that will serve them long after they leave. Director of Language Arts and Instruction Betsy Duffy explains, “Writing notes by hand and outlining in cursive improves memory and critical thinking skills for the information that our students are learning and writing about in their compositions.” In practice, this allows students in upper grades to process information before diving into typewritten essay assignments: first outlining their notes by hand, then organizing those thoughts in a coherent order, and finally transitioning to a typed draft. When they combine keyboard fluency with cursive fluency, students harness a powerful strategy for retaining, assessing, and presenting information.