Is Handwriting an Outdated Skill?

The making of graphic marks in the form of letters was one of the first activities of early humans. Written words are the visual representation of our spoken language, and handwriting is a personal representation of the diversity of language.

Handwriting or “penmanship” has played an integral role in the education of many generations of schoolchildren and is the second of the educational triumvirate of reading, writing and arithmetic. But as laptops and tablets become more commonly used as writing tools, many are ready to leave the skill of handwriting behind. Most students will do most of their writing on computers, the thinking goes, so educators should get them started on keyboarding skills early.

A growing body of research, however, is leading psychologists and neuroscientists to emphasize the importance of teaching handwriting, even in the era of computer keyboard instruction.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

Writing fires up the brain

A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.

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The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.

In another study, Dr. James compared children who physically form letters with those who only watch others doing it. Her observations suggest that it is only the actual effort that engages the brain’s motor pathways and delivers the learning benefits of handwriting.

Writing generates more ideas

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.

Brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

Note-taking by hand better for college students

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks: research showed that in college taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Across three experiments, psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.

As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

“Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended ― and not for buying things on Amazon during class ― they may still be harming academic performance,” said psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University, lead author of the study.

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