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Why we shouldn’t abandon handwriting

  • Writing by hand still matters in the digital age, researchers argue in a new study
  • They carried out two studies and found positive benefits linked to handwriting
  • The lead author believes schools should include national guidelines that include handwriting training

They say the future involves less handwriting and more typing, but one professor is advocating for the implementation of national guidelines that allow children to receive a minimum of handwriting training at school.

Professor Audrey Van der Meer and colleagues, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, carried out a study and found that choosing handwriting over keyboard-use results in the best learning and memory.

“When you write your shopping list or lecture notes by hand, you simply remember the content better afterwards,” Van der Meer said in a news release published on the university’s website.

The findings of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, support previous studies that have also shown that both children and adults learn more and remember better when writing by hand. 

Analyzing brain activity in participants

The topic was previously investigated by Van der Meer and her colleagues in 2017.

The 2017 study involved the examination of the brain activity of 20 students. The more recent study, however, focused on 12 young adults and 12 children – the first time children participated in this type of study.

In both studies, participants wore a hood with over 250 electrodes, which the researchers connected to an EEG to track and record brain wave activity.

Individual examinations took 45 minutes each, and 500 data points per second were received.

Handwriting gives the brain more ‘hooks’ 

The brains of both young adults and children were found to be much more active when they were writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard, the researchers wrote.

“The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain,” said Van der Meer, adding:

“A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.”

These sense experiences, Van der Meer explained, create contact between different parts of the brain and open it up for learning, so that we both learn and remember better.

Based on their study results, she believes that her own and others’ studies emphasise the importance of children being challenged to draw and write at an early age, particularly at school.

While Van der Meer does not negate the positive learning aspects of digital learning, she strongly encourages handwriting training.

“Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence” of increased digital activity, she said.

Other studies have also found positive benefits associated with handwriting. A study by the University of Washington, for example, found that writing by hand and by keyboard utilised different brain functions.

Another 2012 study, published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education, found that handwriting could be crucial for helping children learn the alphabet.

National guidelines should ensure handwriting training

Van der Meer believes that national guidelines that ensure children receive at least a minimum of handwriting training should be put in place, and referred to some schools in Norway that have gone completely digital and skipped handwriting training altogether.

Many schools worldwide have shifted to the adoption of digital handwriting in classrooms, as some teachers believe that keyboards create less frustration for learners, in that it takes them a shorter time to write and therefore motivates them to write more than in the case of handwriting.

Van der Meer, however, believes otherwise: “Learning to write by hand is a slower process, but it’s important for children to go through the tiring phase of learning to write by hand. The intricate hand movements and the shaping of letters are beneficial in several ways.

“If you use a keyboard, you use the same movement for each letter. Writing by hand requires control of your fine motor skills and senses.

It’s important to put the brain in a learning state as often as possible. I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I’d take notes by hand during a lecture,” she explained.

In order for our brains to develop optimally, Van der Meer says we need to use it for what it’s best at:

“We need to live an authentic life. We have to use all our senses, be outside, experience all kinds of weather and meet other people.

“If we don’t challenge our brain, it can’t reach its full potential. And that can impact school performance,” .

Van der Meer

Here are 12 Reasons Why Handwriting Is Important

1. The brain engages differently when we write something by hand as opposed to typing it on a keyboard or by touching a screen. Studies show that writing improves memory; students retain learning better when working with new ideas through handwriting instead of typing.

2. Engaging the body in writing by hand helps make writing a more holistic activity. There is something uniquely physical and multidimensional about putting pen to paper to form words and sentences.

3. Learning the alphabet by interacting with each letter in many different physical ways helps students imprint and retain the letters and the letter sounds for easier recall when learning to read. Learning letters on a screen engages at most two physical channels: the eyes and the fingertips. It is not possible to tell one letter from another by the shape of the keys. Learning letters through writing them involves numerous tactile experiences, engaging the fine-motor muscles of the fingers and hand, and larger muscles of the arm and body, as well as the eyes.

4. Many writers attest to the value of a handwritten first draft and the subsequent process of reading through and interacting with their writing by annotating, correcting, editing, and reshaping it as a whole. Typing on a screen tempts us instead to edit as we go, fragmenting and dissecting, and potentially interfering with the organic flow of ideas.

5. Even in this digital age, many accomplished people consider it critical to their success to keep a small notebook and pen handy so that they can jot down ideas in the moment and refer back to them later.

6. Many historical documents were written by hand and are now indecipherable to any who are unable to read cursive. The ability to read handwriting is gained through learning to write in one’s own handwriting. Being able to decipher both cursive and print is an important part of language literacy.

7. Handwriting can help us slow down and fully engage with our thoughts. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I type as fast as I think”? This is certainly an asset when transcribing the spoken word, but thoughts need to breathe (as do writers), and writing by hand conveniently holds such a space for thoughts to fully form before being set down in sentences.

8. With a pen in hand, there are instantly accessible creative and artistic opportunities that are not possible to weave into the experience of typing on a keyboard.

9. Handwriting is unique to each individual writer, unlike typeface. One’s handwriting style, and especially one’s signature, is a public and permanent statement. Learning to write well can help make that statement strong, beautiful, and – perhaps most importantly – legible.

10. Handwritten notes to friends and loved ones are intimate and personal in a way that email and typewritten text cannot fully convey. Nothing but handwriting can fully represent the mood and personality of the writer. A handwritten love note is a creative gift to cherish!

11. Proficient writing has a soothing flow and rhythm. While technology and culture is goading us to work faster and more intensely, tasks such as writing can help us find healthy balance in our work, our learning, and our play.

12. Being able to write effortlessly enables the mind to focus more fully on a topic. Struggling with handwriting takes valuable brain energy away from any writing task, but when that skill is mastered, it makes all the difference. Skilled, fluid handwriting is an asset to learning!

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Written by Victor Ekong