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The physical act of making new letters or characters by hand, such as these in Chinese, can help learners remember them better, research shows.


Writing by hand better for learning, study shows

by Gulnaz Saiyed
Jan 27, 2011


Don’t write off pen and paper just yet. New research shows the old-fashioned tools can make you a stronger learner.

Sure, for many, writing by hand seems a little retro. However, using a keyboard or touchscreen to write is a drastically different cognitive process from writing by hand, according to a study published in the journal Advances in Haptics.

Researchers Anne Mangen, of the University of Stavanger in Norway, and Jean-Luc Velay, a French neuroscientist, said their research indicates the increase in digital writing in schools needs to be examined more closely.

Jacob Payne, 28, may be typical of the new generation.

“I can't tell you the last time I wrote more than a few sentences by hand,” said Payne, a journalist in Louisville, Ky. “It's literally been years.”

Payne said he simply does not need to use paper and pen, since he can digitally record, report, edit and publish their work with iPads, laptops and phones.

With more careers, such as Payne’s, requiring a strong command of technology, schools are preparing students to be tech-savvy at an early age. Penmanship is not required to be taught in Illinois schools. And cursive is not part of the national Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is adopted by most U.S. states, while keyboarding skills are specifically required.

The researchers found that writing by hand is fundamentally different from typing on a computer. And people who are learning new letters—such as children learning to read for the first time, or as adults picking up a second language with new characters— retain the information best when writing the letters by hand, according to Velay’s research.

The physical act of holding a pencil and shaping letters sends feedback signals to the brain. This leaves a “motor memory,” which later makes it easier to recall the information connected with the movement, according to the study.

When adults in Velay’s study were asked, either through typing or handwriting, to learn 10 new, unfamiliar letters, those who had learned them by hand were more likely to remember the letters correctly. Brain scans showed that when they remember each letter, the motor-function part of their brain was also active.

Conversely, this did not happen for the people who learned new letters with a computer. Their minds had not connected the letter with a motor function.

The movement for “the typing of a T is no different than the typing of a Y,” Mangen said. Further, when “you write something on the keyboard, you get the visual output somewhere else, on the screen,” as opposed to you watching your hand when you write on paper, she said.

This means that learning to write by hand can strengthen reading skills.

Mangen said she understands the benefits of typing—it’s quite simply faster. However, the fact that writing by hand can be comparatively “long and difficult” might be the reason it can be so helpful to triggering brain processes, she said.

Payne said the speed is a necessary skill for his work, since his stories must go out to his readers as they happen. However, he does acknowledge that something is lost with typing, and that he would “try to focus more” if he had the time to write by hand.

It is not likely, though, that young learners today are devoid of either handwriting or typing skills, said Roxanne Owens, an associate professor at the DePaul University School of Education in Chicago.

In Illinois, however, each district is decides how handwriting will be covered in schools, said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. And, since the state does not track it, it could be the case that “some are not teaching it at all.”

Most schools still take the time to teach “the maneuvering of handwriting,” but that there is an increasing focus on typing skills for young students, Owens said.

A problem arises, however, when or if “one takes the place of another,” said Mangen.

Cognitive processes need to be kept in mind when implementing new ideas in schools, she said. The research is important to understand before “lauding and applauding” technology and its uses, she said.