Power of the Pen
The science of handwriting and a student’s chance at $15,000
When summer winds into fall, children begin to think about the coming school year and age-old questions: Will I make new friends? Will I like my new teachers? Parents have different sorts of questions about the school year, wondering about the implications of the Common Core standards, new assessments their children might face, and the impact that all of this will have on their child’s learning and future.
A point of recent controversy among educators and parents has been the role of handwriting in the school curriculum. As our culture becomes increasingly digital, it is natural to wonder how much time we should spend teaching children to print and produce cursive writing, as opposed to acquiring the keyboarding skills that are necessary for 21st-century careers. It seems logical to adapt our schools and the skills we teach our children to the changing times. However, we believe handwriting can play an important role in young children’s education—and a growing body of scientific research supports this view.
Handwriting and Literacy Development
Learning to read is an academic milestone that has important, lifelong consequences. Children who fail to develop literacy skills tend to perform poorly in school, and grow up to face limited career prospects (1, 2). Reading to preschoolers, and engaging in activities to build their oral language skills, can contribute to the successful acquisition of literacy skills (1). According to a recent set of studies, learning to handwrite letters also has a role to play in fostering a child’s transition to literacy.
Karin James and her research group have conducted a series of experiments exploring the influence of handwriting on development of letter perception (3, 4), which is an important component of literacy skill. Brain imaging studies conducted on adults have identified neural circuitry that is involved in the processing of letters and words (3). Dr. James and her colleagues reported that the same neural circuitry is involved when preschool children process letters, but only when the children had experience printing the letters. Children who learned about the letters by typing, as well as children who were exposed to the letters through other means, did not show activity in this circuitry (3, 5). That is, children who learn about letters through printing them seem to integrate knowledge of these letters into the developing “reading system” in the brain.
Dr. James has an intriguing hypothesis about the benefits that printing can have for developing readers (3). Skilled readers need to be able to recognize letters in whatever form they are encountered, she says. For example, you need to be able to recognize a letter whether it is written in uppercase or lowercase, whether it is typed or handwritten, and regardless of the idiosyncratic features of the font or handwriting you are reading. This skill requires readers to recognize the core features of the letters, and to ignore those features of the letter that do not affect its identity (e.g., think of the difference between a b when it is printed, used in cursive writing, and typed in different fonts). Printing is a fine motor skill that requires time to develop, and thus children’s earliest efforts to print letters will tend to be imperfect. Dr. James suggests that the production of imperfect letters helps children to learn which features are important to the recognition of that letter, and which features are not (3). Giving children the opportunity to produce letters, and to do so imperfectly, might therefore be a useful way of facilitating the development of key literacy skills.
Learning to read is a complex task, and the successful acquisition of literacy skills is affected by many factors. Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence suggesting that handwriting practice, particularly in the preschool and early elementary school years, may provide children with benefits in acquiring vital literacy skills.
Handwriting and Learning
The benefits of handwriting do not stop in the preschool and early elementary school years. A recently published study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer suggests that even college-age students can benefit from handwriting (6). In a series of experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer presented students with lecture material and afforded them the opportunity to take handwritten notes, or to take notes by typing on a laptop. The key finding of these experiments is that students who took handwritten notes outperformed students who typed their notes. The difference was most pronounced on questions that probed the students’ conceptual knowledge of the material that was presented.
Mueller and Oppenheimer suggest that handwriting and typing lead to different note-taking strategies (6). Typing is fast, but also limited in the way that information can be arrayed on the page. Students who typed the notes in these experiments had a tendency to take down information word for word without thinking about it too much. Their attention was placed on the transcription of the lecture material, rather than on processing the content of the lecture. Handwriting is slower than typing, and therefore students taking notes by hand did not have the option to transcribe the lecture in detail. They were forced to think about the lecture content and be judicious in what they wrote down, and how they arrayed the information on the page. Thinking about the lecture content as it unfolds aided the students’ acquisition of the concepts that were presented.
1) National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
2) Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. solving problems in the teaching of literacy. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
3) James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1, 32-42.
4) James, K. H. (2010). Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain. Developmental Science, 13, 279-288.
5) Kersey, A. J., & James, K. H. (2013).
Brain activation patterns resulting from learning letter forms through active self-production and passive observation in young children. Frontiers in Psychology, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00567
6) Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.