Due to the increased use of computers, and particularly e-learning, it’s easy to ask yourself, is handwriting still important? Psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting as no longer valuable. Evidence has shown there are intrinsic links between handwriting and broader educational development. Here’s how handwriting trains the brain and improves children’s cognitive function more than typing - and why handwriting is still important.
1. More of the areas of the brain are activated when writing than typing.
A 2012 study asked children who had not yet learned to read or write, to try writing and typing a letter of the alphabet freehand. When writing, the children exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated when adults read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex. By contrast, the children who typed the letter showed no such effect. Dr. James who ran the study stated “When a kid produces a messy letter, that might help them learn it.” Unlike typing, the sequential hand movements required in handwriting activate regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, and memory.
2. Writing by hand sharpens critical thinking.
A University of Washington study looked at children’s ability to write sentences using both a pen and a keyboard, concluding the children (aged between 6 and 10) “consistently did better, wrote more and they wrote faster” when they wrote the sentences by hand rather than typing them.
When writing by hand, not only did the children produce more words, but they expressed more ideas. The study’s brain imaging demonstrated when these children were asked to come up with ideas, 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.
3. Handwriting increases retention.
Children can better remember the words whilst writing them by hand than by typing on a keyboard. A study at a university in California concluded students who took handwritten notes were better able to answer questions on the lecture than those who used a laptop. This is because handwriting requires a preliminary process of summarising and comprehension; in contrast, those working on a keyboard do not ‘mentally engage’ with the information, thus cannot retain the information as well.
4. Writing by hand improves reading comprehension.
Another study in France monitored children aged three to five, asking half the group to write letters by hand and the other half to type them on a computer. Those who wrote by hand were better at recognising them than those who typed them. This is because when writing by hand, the movements involved leave a motor memory, which helps you to recognise letters. Cursive handwriting (script, rather than of printed letters) may even help children with dyslexia remember the order of letters in words better.
5. Handwriting helps develop cognitive motor skills.
Writing and typing require very different cognitive processes. “Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,” says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology. “Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.”
Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. It is easy enough for children to learn very fast, but above all the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter.
When handwriting, you not only see the letter appear on the page, but also feel the movement of the pen or pencil as it moves along the page. This is a far more enriching experience with higher levels of neurosensory activity. The benefits of this become more apparent with younger children, as they learn important distinctions between the shapes of letters and gain a better understanding of language in general.
Written by Elizabeth Winter