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The Art of Writing by Hand Still Relevant in the 21st Century

hand-531271-m“That linkage between hand and mind is intimate.” – anthropologist David F. Armstrong

With the phenomenal advancement of technology over the last couple of decades, computers, smart boards, and smart devices are now typical tools in classroom education. As keystrokes fast become the norm for producing written communications, the emphasis on handwritten work is fading. Should we be concerned? As long as our children know how letters are formed, does it really matter if they can’t write neatly? After all, that’s what technology is for – to produce beautiful, type-written work so our educators won’t have to suffer through pages of illegible handwritten scrawls.

“…the educational trend is nonetheless away from handwriting. It is taught less rigorously than in the past, and typing is ever more common in ever lower grades, a drift reflective of handwriting’s dwindling in society at large.” – Scientific American

Although the research on this topic is still rather scanty and more research is required, what little there is does demonstrate significant promise for persevering with this archaic practice – especially for younger children.

Handwriting benefits go beyond the ability to communicate through written word

So here it is… handwriting is beneficial because:

  • it helps children learn to read
  • it enhances brain development and changes the way children learn
  • it activates more areas of the brain (compared to typing)
  • it makes children smarter

In the late 1980s Haas found, to her surprise, that students seemed to do a better job of planning their writing by hand than by keyboard… it’s the human body that intervenes between the tool and the brain. Central to that intervention are our hands, through which so many everyday interactions flow. – Scientific American

And if you learn to write in cursive, you will develop even more areas of the brain, including the connection between the left and right hemispheres.


The Mind-Body Connection

We have been exploring this concept for the past couple of weeks – movement by the body enhances learning. Forming letters with pencils is simply another form of movement – albeit the movement of small muscles that control our fine motor skills. These fine motor movements also serve to form neural connections in the brain so we should not be so quick to ditch our writing implements.

The importance of the hand-mind link is seen in developing children, for whom the ability to manipulate physical objects tracks uncannily with the acquisition of speech. It is also evident in the clinical literature, which contains many examples of patients with brain lesions that impair their handwriting also struggling to recognize letters by sight. For people who have trouble reading, tracing the outlines of letters with their fingers often helps. – Scientific American

Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway explains that several things are happening when we write by hand:

  • When writing by hand, the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps us recognise letters. This implies a connection between reading and writing, and suggests that the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading.
  • The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.
  • Handwriting unifies the hand, eye and attention at a single point in space and time because we need to be able to see in order to write well (think about how writing in the dark affects our handwriting).
  • It takes more time to write by hand than it does to type – this added time can also influence the learning process.

Marieke Longcamp, a cognitive scientist at Aix-Marseille University in France observed that:

  • when children still learning the alphabet are taught to write letters by hand, they more readily recognised the letters than when they were taught the appropriate keystrokes
  • adults who were taught to handwrite unfamiliar Bengali letterforms were better able to remember the letters over time, compared to adults that were taught to type the letterforms. Even though both groups were equally adept at recognition tests immediately after training, after several weeks, the group that accumulated letterform knowledge by handwriting them retained their learning better than those who typed.

Letter recognition is a fundament of reading. It is also crucial to spelling, an ability that predicts many high-level language skills, such as translating ideas into text or expressing concepts clearly.

“It’s legible, automatic handwriting, when you just ask kids to write the alphabet from memory, that was the single best predictor of not only spelling but the quality and amount they composed.” – Virginia Berninger, University of Washington.

Brain Activity During Writing

Brain activity differs when a child is printing or typing letters

Preliterate, five-year old children printed, typed, or traced letters and shapes, then were shown images of these stimuli while undergoing functional MRI scanning. A previously documented “reading circuit” was recruited during letter perception only after handwriting – not after typing or tracing experience. These findings demonstrate that handwriting is important for the early recruitment in letter processing of brain regions known to underlie successful reading. Handwriting therefore may facilitate reading acquisition in young children. – Trends in Neuroscience and Education (December 2012)

Subjects who saw letters they had earlier printed, but not typed, had more activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s Area) which is extremely important for language production and verb comprehension.

Image Source: Wikipedia (inferior frontal gyrus)

The subjects also had more activity in the left anterior cingulate cortex involved in rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy, impulse control, and emotion.

Image Source: Wikipedia (Anterior Cingulate Cortex)

In sum, the results of the whole brain analysis suggest that:

  • only after practice printing letters does the brain respond differently during letter versus shape perception
  • freeform printing and tracing practice both result in the recruitment of the inferior frontal gyrus during letter perception
  • freeform printing experience recruits posterior parietal regions and the precentral gyrus more than tracing experience during letter perception
  • typing experience does not recruit any brain regions more than other sensori-motor conditions during letter perception

The Bottom Line

The short of the long of it is that if you want to get the greatest neural activity, you should print your letters rather than type them. For younger children that have not learned how to form letters on their own, they will still derive some benefit from tracing letters rather than typing them from a keyboard.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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