More Than a Flourish: Cursive Handwriting and Your Child’s Brain

Many years ago students had to put quill to paper in order to produce essays.  Letters were made with beautiful flourishes, and children were cautioned to be careful not to drip their ink on their work. 

We’ve come a long way from those days.

Today, educators debate about whether to teach children how to write in cursive.  Many people think that cursive handwriting is unnecessary and old-fashioned.  It isn’t even required in the Core Curriculum standards.

So, what are the benefits of learning cursive?  The first - and, perhaps, most important - is that it sparks higher cognitive development.  Cursive and printed handwriting access different parts of the brain.  Cursive handwriting stimulates the connection between the brain’s two hemispheres: the right hemisphere (often thought to house more creative processes) and the left (the more “logical” side).  Cursive handwriting also activates the brain’s “reading circuit,” so that reading comprehension and concept retention are improved.  Printing, typing, and keyboarding don’t activate and stimulate the brain in these ways.

Studies have shown that more ideas are expressed when a child is writing in cursive than when printing or typing - and that cursive leads to improved skills like planning, ideation, punctuation, grammar, and even better test results.

And, amazingly, cursive actually improves children’s self-esteem.  The simple exercise of writing a letter in cursive wakes up the limbic area of the brain, which is the area that promotes self-esteem and filters information for emotional relationships.  A child who practices cursive will feel better about him/herself and will tend to behave in a more adult-like way.

Cursive is more than just handwritten flourishes — it’s a beneficial and important skill for your child’s cognitive development!  Call us at Tutored Talent to find out more and how to help your child succeed.

Some recommended reading:

Berninger, V. “Evidence-Based, Developmentally Appropriate Writing Skills K-5:  Teaching the Orthographic Loop of Working Memory to Write Letters os Developing Writers Can Spell Words and Express Ideas.”  Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?” An Educational Summit, Washington D.C., January 23, 2012.

Doverspike, J. “Ten Reasons People Still Need Cursive.” The Federalist.com, February 25, 2015.  http://thefederalist.com/2015/02/25/ten-reasons-people-still-need-cursive.

“In the States.” 2011.  Common Core State Standards Initiative.  http://www.corestandards.org/in-the-states

Klemm, W.R.. “Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter.” Psychology Today, Mar. 14, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mermory-medic/201303/why-writing-hand-could-make-you-smarter.

Rosenblaum, S., Weiss, P., and Parush, S. 2003. “Product and Process Evaluation of Handwriting Difficulties.” Educational Psychology Review, 15:1, pp. 41-42.

Saperstein Associates. “Handwriting in the 21st Century? Research Shows Why Handwriting Belongs in Today’s Classroom.”  A White Paper presented at An Educational Summit, Washington D.C., January 23, 2012.

Steimetz, K. “Five Reasons Kids Should Still Learn Cursive Writing.” Time Living Education, June 4, 2014. http://time.com/2820780/five-reasons-kids-should-still-learn-cursive-writing/

Sortino, D. “Brain Research and Cursive Writing.” The Press Democrat, May 22,2013. http://davidsortino.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/10221/brain-research-and-cursive-writing/

Zubrzlycki, J. “Summit to Make a Case for Teaching Handwriting. “Education Week, Jan. 23, 2012. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/01/25/18handwriting_ep.h.31.html?qs=cursive

Automaticity and Your Child's Learning Style

Automaticity is the concept of being so familiar with something that it feels like you don’t have to think about it in order to do it or use it.  For example….  Have you ever been driving in the car and felt that you didn’t even need to think about the directions in to get to your destination?  That’s automaticity.  In our children’s learning lives, there are four concepts for which automaticity is a must: phonics, or the sounds of letters; and then certain math functions — specifically, addition, subtraction, and multiplication.  

In the 1980s and 1990s, we had the “Reading Wars” - a long dispute about the best way to teach children to read.  On one side were proponents of traditional methods, including phonics.  With phonics, children learn phonemes - the letter sounds - to the point that they are so ingrained in the child’s mind that the association between letter and sound becomes automatic.  The idea is that children will be able to focus on sounding out new words if they already know the letter sounds.

On the other side of the Reading Wars were supporters of the “Whole Language” movement. Whole Language emphasized “lexical reading,” or recognizing entire words and phrases, rather than using phonics to sound component parts of words.  Like phonics, though, there was a level of automaticity to Whole Language - children still had to memorize pieces to understand a whole.  

In math, automaticity has to do with having the math facts memorized and the answers automatically available when a math problem is given.  Memorizing these math facts allows them to be stored in long-term memory, thus leaving room for the child’s working memory to focus on the process of solving a math problem.  

Just like with reading, a split in opinion formed about whether memorization is the “best” learning method.  In the 1960s and 1970s, this split was most clearly seen with the rise (and quick fall) of “New Math,” then in the 1980s with the “Reform Mathematics.”  More lately, we’ve seen it in the Common Core.  These movements emphasize understanding math functions in a holistic sense, rather than by memorization of procedure and algorithms.

These splits of opinion have never truly resolved.  No one has found the best way for all children to learn yet.

The truth is: There is no “best” way for “all” children.  Each child learns differently.  Some children need to explore language and math in a more creative way.  Others are much more comfortable with practice and repetition.  Both approaches require careful guidance so that the child can develop his or her own insights in a way that is natural, comfortable, and supportive of the child.  

At Tutored Talent we spend time watching your child work with posed problems - whether it’s solving a math problem, reading a passage of literature, or building a tower with Legos.  We observe how your child approaches the issue at hand.  We offer some guidance, but - most importantly - we listen to how your child describes his or her own approach.  By doing this, we are able to hear what your child emphasizes for their own learning process.  We can then build a program that is in harmony with your child’s process, rather your child being forced into a “one size fits all” approach.  This allows your child to flourish and to feel proud of their efforts.  

No matter which way your child learns best, we want to identify, build, and repeat a successful learning process.  The more we can do that, the more naturally your child will learn - so that their success will be automatic.

 

Tutoring and Test Preparation: Making A Rainbow

Tests are a part of every child's school life.  When I was a child in elementary school (so many years ago!), we took tests A LOT:  There were the usual Friday spelling tests and math quizzes, of course.  Then there were "Weekly Reader" tests in all our subject areas, plus Scholastic Reading Lab tests to progress to the next reading level.  I was very competitive with the spelling and math tests because they were public.  The Scholastic Reading Lab tests were my favorite because we were able to use a special color pencil to fill in a graph with the results.  By the mid-year point my graph looked like it had the potential to be a magnificent rainbow.

Each successive test’s results simply reinforced the picture of potential in my head.  Not everyone has the good fortune to have the opportunity to make their test results into rainbows, but we should.

We're coming up to towards the end of the school year.  This is the season of tests, and it should be a time to think of potential.  This shouldn’t be “stress” time for any of our children. Testing is an organized way to find out what a child knows and how well the child can navigate a test maker’s intention.  Some children are nonchalant about testing events, almost uncaring. Others take on the attitudes of the adults surrounding them during the testing season.  Often these adults are nervous about the test results because the adults attach their own personal accomplishment to the child’s testing outcomes.  

At Tutored Talent, we teach strategies specially tailored to each child.  For the child who appears nonchalant, we help them to learn techniques to use their energy wisely to accomplish their best at the moment of the test.  For the child who gets stressed out just thinking about testing, we teach testing strategies to lessen that anxiety.  For both types of children, the strategies are ones that they can pull out and use throughout their academic career.  

We are all confronted with many tests throughout our academic and work careers - life itself can be one big test sometimes.  Using positive strategies for these events helps to boost confidence and self-assurance, makes for better results, and helps your child to address all the "tests" in their life head on, without fear.  

Here’s an easy tip that I share with all of my students for reading tests:

Scan the questions BEFORE reading the passage or excerpt.  This helps give you the flavor of the test maker’s intent..  It also allows you to work through the passage with confidence because you won’t feel surprised by the questions at the end of the “read.”  

I always tell my students “use what you already know.”  Scanning the questions first helps you to “already know” what the test maker wants from you.  When it comes time to answer the questions, read the question again to make sure that you’ve read it completely.   Then you can be in charge of yourself rather than the test taking charge of you.

Here at Tutored Talent, we have many more strategies for successful test taking.  Call us here in Los Angeles at 310-909-4387 and schedule in-home or online tutoring sessions for test preparation and test-taking strategies.

Stumped? Your Child, Visual Memory, and Navigating New Concepts

Visual memory is an important element in learning how to read, spell, understand, use numerals, and even to develop social skills.  It helps your child to remember and interpret schoolmates’ facial expressions and gestures so that your child can learn to give the correct response.  It also helps your child to remember what a shape looks like or the formula that the teacher just wrote on the board.  See, e.g., “New study reveals visual working memory may provide clues to autism’s social struggles,” Science Daily, 2/10/16.  

Basically, visual memory is the camera inside your child’s head.  And, like a camera, when it is working well, it will produce crystal clear pictures and help your child process foundational skills in school.        

We use visual memory all the time, in all sorts of situations.  For example, back in the early 1990s, my daughter and I moved to North Carolina.  This was before GPS and cell phones.  The move went without a hitch – even our remarkably fussy mutt, Pepper, managed to survive the cross-country trip without too much trouble – but when it came to buying groceries, we were…well, lost!  I asked a neighbor how to get to the local grocery store, which was called Harris Teeter (yes, that is really the name).  I expected him to give me directions with street names and highways and so on.  

That didn’t happen.

“Well,” he drawled, “y’all go yonder down this road and bear left at the tree stump that’s all slanted at the top, and then you keep going till y’all get to the house with the blue garage door, and then y’all make a sharp right.  Y’all will get there in a piece, don’ mind the traffic.  The store’s on the right.”  

“Oooookay-dokey,” I thought, a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell one tree stump from another.  In Los Angeles, I’d always relied on the Thomas Guide to get me around town.  I understood the pages and how to locate streets and highway entrances and exits with the map’s colored grids.          

But here, in North Carolina, the directions to the grocery store depended entirely on my neighbor’s visual memory - and, eventually, on mine.               

I thanked him, and my daughter and I set out on our first adventure in North Carolina.  We had that particular adventure a few times – okay, several – before our brains were able to spot the right tree stump without a lot of effort.  Finally, though, I taught myself to navigate my new surroundings with my own visual cues – things that would be in mind’s eye to help me get from one place to another.  (The blue garage door proved elusive – we never did find it.)  
 
Visual memory is processed differently and more sharply by the brain than certain other senses – for example, auditory.  We’ll address listening skills in another blog post soon.  However, stimulating and utilizing visual memory is of the utmost importance for students’ success.  There’s an old Chinese proverb that says it best:  “I hear and I forget; I see, and I remember.”  Visual memory helps your child navigate through new places and concepts.  Just like me and that old tree stump.

Here are some suggestions and sites for practicing with your child to improve visual memory:

Use a deck of cards and play Concentration or Go Fish.

Play the Memory game.

Put fun items found in the home on a tray, ask your child to look at the items on the tray, cover the tray, ask your child to recite what was on the tray.
  
Ask your child to draw a map of his/her bedroom from memory

Here’s an excellent short presentation about using simple objects to improve visual memory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=316fk4m1AYQ&feature=youtu.be

And here’s a marvelous site with a variety of skill enhancement activities, including visual memory: http://www.ot-mom-learning-activities.com/visual-memory-activities.html
    

Teaching Vocabulary: Hamlet as Man, Mystery, and…Delicious Pastry?

Teaching vocabulary helps students’ brains grow and expands their ability to make connections for new information.  It also helps them to do better on tests – whether the test is for language skills, math, or science.  In fact, studies have shown that the depth of a student’s vocabulary is a key indicator of the student’s ability to test successfully.  See, e.g., Marzano, et al., Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual (2005).  Flashcards and workbooks will help a child learn words, but for a child to truly learn vocabulary – that is, how words build context and meaning – children need experience and conversation.  Every time you talk with your child, you have a great opportunity to help them enrich their vocabulary and to help your child bridge the little gaps that may exist.

Several weeks ago, I was Skype tutoring a student to help him with his 9th-grade English assignments.  His class was reading Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Hamlet.  I asked my student to give me a short summary of Act I.  As he spoke, I became very confused: I didn’t remember that Hamlet involved so much eating.  But that’s what my student kept talking about – Hamlet eating.  I asked my student to tell me the exact lines that talked about eating.  He said, “Well, it’s all over!  It’s every time they talk about the danish!”

And that’s when I realized: Danish and danish.  This student only knew about the delicious pastry…not the citizens of Denmark!

When I explained what “Danish” really meant here – what the actual context was -- we both had a good laugh.  After all, Hamlet is pretty hilarious when it’s just baked goods on the line!

This is a funny and somewhat extreme example, but it shows you how important experience and attentive discussion are to building your child’s vocabulary.   As adults, we know how to ask clarifying questions when something is unclear to us.  Children learn how to do this when you ask them questions – whether it’s about something they’re reading, talking about, or observing.  Asking children questions, encouraging them to ask you questions, and responding with varied intonation, phrases, and colloquialisms helps a child’s vocabulary become richer and deeper and helps your child’s brain to make connections and develop the problem-solving skills that will help on tests – and everything else they do.

So, talk with your children.  Read with your children.  Talk with your children about what you’ve read with them.  And…eat danish with your children.  Just don’t eat the Danish. 

 

Spring Storytelling

Spring is finally here!  Spring is the season of family, new beginnings, new ideas -- new stories. It's a great time to sit down and share stories with your children -- most especially, stories about family.  Telling stories about family helps children to develop a sense of pride, build their listening comprehension skills, and, ultimately, become wonderful storytellers themselves.  

My family loved discussing current events, but hearing stories about relatives who grew up long ago and in quite different circumstances was what got us kids to really perk up and listen. There was the story about a great-grandmother who had a habit of hiding bread under her bed.  As little children, my siblings, cousins, and I simply couldn’t understand why she did this - most especially because she would always set out lavish snacks on the kitchen table for us when we visited!  Learning about where she came from and what led to her need to hide bread “just in case” gave us a sense of place and belonging.  

Those stories about my great-grandmother and other relatives and their struggles were rich lessons in civics, history, and culture.  They also helped us learn how to make inferences and connections: The current events that we discussed at dinner made more sense when we heard stories about long ago.  For us, sitting around the kitchen table while my mother and grandmother cooked a holiday meal was an opportunity to learn more about what made our family special.  The stories we heard helped us figure out our place in the world.  

Spring is a time for new beginnings, and family stories are a time to treasure where we came from.  Tell your children a family story - it will help them learn how to tell their own.

Coming Soon!

Tutored Talent is pleased to launch its new website!  We have lots of good stuff headed your way, including a blog, shop, and links for parents and students.  Our blog, The Sundial, will be updated frequently with articles geared to help parents identify and address their children's educational needs, as well as commentary on education-oriented news from around the country, and reviews of new children's literature and the latest educational gadgets, gizmos, and learning aids.  We welcome questions from our readers - write in with a question and it may be the subject of our next blog post!