Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts and Word Roots)

More schools are getting rid of "old-fashioned" skills like penmanship and multiplication tables, but research shows that students benefit from some classic teaching methods

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When Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at a public high school in Magnolia, Ohio, was told that she would be required to teach her students Latin and Greek word roots, she groaned and rolled her eyes. Kail believes in a progressive approach to education, in which active engagement in meaningful learning is paramount. In an account of her experience in the English Journal, she wrote, “asking students to do rote memorization was the antithesis of what I believed in most.” Still, her department head insisted on it, so Kail went forward with the attitude, “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.” She was sure her students wouldn’t like it, either.

Kail was in for a surprise — as is anyone who takes a look at a raft of recent studies supporting the effectiveness of “old school” methods like memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting and teaching argumentation (activities that once went by the names drillrecitation, penmanship and rhetoric). While the education world is all abuzz about so-called 21st century skills like collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking, this research suggests that we might do well to add a strong dose of the 19th century to our children’s schooling.

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Kail’s experience is instructive. As soon as she began teaching her students the Greek and Latin origins of many English terms — that the root sta means “put in place or stand,” for example, and that cess means “to move or withdraw” — they eagerly began identifying familiar words that incorporated the roots, like statue and recess. Her three classes competed against one another to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.) For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

That’s also true of another old-fashioned method: drilling math facts, like the multiplication table. Although many progressive educators decry what they call “drill and kill” (kill students’ love of learning, that is), rapid mental retrieval of basic facts is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math. The only way to achieve this “automaticity,” so far as anyone has been able to determine, is to practice. And practice. Indeed, many experts who have observed the wide gap between the math scores of American and Chinese students on international tests attribute the Asian students’ advantage to their schools’ relentless focus on memorizing math facts. Failure to do so can effectively close off the higher realms of mathematics: a study published in the journal Mathematical Cognition found that most errors made by students working on complex math problems were due to a lack of automaticity in basic math facts.

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Here are a few other old-school skills that are still worth cultivating:

  • Handwriting
    Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age 5. But many schools are now emphasizing typing over writing. Last year, for example, the Indiana Department of Education announced that the state’s public schools no longer had to teach cursive writing and they should ensure that students were “proficient in keyboard use” instead.
  • Argumentation
    In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. Educational research on argumentation demonstrates that it helps students learn better too. A study published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching in 2010, for example, found that 10th-graders who were taught how to construct an argument as part of their lessons on genetics not only had better arguments but also demonstrated a better understanding of the material.
  • Reading Aloud
    Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves. Educator Doug Lemov, author of Teach like a Champion and a co-author of the new book Practice Perfect, explains why: “Children who are read to become familiar with the sound and rhythm and complexity of language long before they can produce it themselves. By virtue of being exposed to a wide variety of writing types and styles, they come to understand that the use of language involves intentional choices made by the author and is representative of the author’s time and place.”

Stories are especially powerful when narrated by a good reader, says Lemov, “someone who brings the story to life, models expressive reading and shows kids what a book ‘sounds like’ in the voice of someone who reads with passion.” But reading aloud, he adds, is a “dying art.” Maybe we adults should brush up on our old-school skills too.

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