Aug 23, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Infant temperament

When it comes to lost arts, we could argue that none is getting lost faster than handwriting. Since the personal computer and now the telephone have become the primary methods for recording our ideas, we simply do not write – I mean with an actual writing implement like a pen or pencil – as much as we used to.

So, we must ask ourselves, is this really a problem? Sure, one could argue that receiving a handwritten letter is more meaningful than getting one that is typed, but that’s an emotional opinion; it’s not a scientific argument. And aren’t professionals in all fields using more computers, tablets and handhelds to communicate, record and share ideas? So, what is the real value of learning handwriting skills versus being able to type 100 words per minute on a QWERTY keyboard?

At Indiana University, Dr. Karin Harman James, assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences, focuses her research on how motor stimuli can influence our visual recognition, and how the brain changes as we have different experiences. This research provides a basis for a scientific argument for the continued instruction of handwriting.

In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Science, adults were shown new characters as well as a mirror image of these characters after reproducing them through writing and keyboarding. When quizzed afterward, subjects were shown to have a “stronger, longer lasting recognition” of the characters’ correct orientation when they had written them by hand versus produced them by matching them to a keyboard button. This suggests that engaging the motor nerves to create the shapes by hand helped solidify the ability to identify such shapes.

In another study, James’ team took this idea to the next level to see what was actually going on inside the brain during these activities. They used a functional MRI to map brain activity in children as they looked at letters before and after letter-learning instruction. Their results showed that those who practiced writing the letters showed more brain activity than those who only looked at the letters. In addition, according to a 2010 report on the research in the Wall Street Journal Online, James said that after four weeks of training, the children who practiced writing skills showed brain activation similar to an adult’s.

Between these two studies, we see excellent examples of brain plasticity at work. James’ work demonstrates a clear connection between how engaging more of the brain in the activity of writing improves how letters are committed to memory. Given that letter recognition is an essential step for early readers, it’s easy to see why practicing writing letters is an essential component of the groundwork for later success.

Certainly, with limited time, schools try to maximize student achievement, and give them a baseline of skills that will allow them to continue to develop to optimize their success throughout life in an increasingly technology-based society. That said, based on James’ research, it’s quite clear that penmanship has an important place in the classroom, and not just as an important traditional skill.  In actually applying pen to paper, we allow our students to engage their brains in ways that typing on a keyboard cannot. And whether such an activity is done with pen and paper, a stylus and a tablet PC or chalk on a blackboard, it is in every student’s best interest to practice the “write” stuff.

For further reading:

The many health perks of good handwriting. Deardorff, Julie. Chicago Tribune, June 15, 2011. Referenced on August 14, 2011.

How handwriting trains the brain. Bounds, Gwendolyn. The Wall Street Journal Online, October 5, 2010. Referenced on August 14, 2011.

Writing strengthens orthography and alphabetic-coding strengthens phonology in learning to read Chinese. Guan, Connie Qun; Liu, Ying; Chan, Derek Ho Leung; Ye, Feifei; Perfetti, Charles A. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 103(3), Aug 2011, 509-522.


Related Reading:

Why Limit Screen Time? Scientific Research Explains

Ok, so you made a mistake. But look what you learned!