Don’t Give Up Handwriting Just Yet: The Connection Between Writing By Hand and Learning

While many kids are switching over from learning to trace letters to typing on a tablet, there are learning benefits to putting the pen to paper.

Parents and teachers both know the unique pain that is staring at a child’s handwriting and realizing that not only is it illegible, it barely resembles language at all.

Ugh.

So parents and educators can be forgiven for running a hand across the forehead and saying a silent prayer of thanks for personal computers and Microsoft Word. After all, it’s only grandpa who complains that kids can’t write worth a darn any more.

Right?

According to a number of studies examining the connection between handwriting and the way the brain learns, maybe all those computers aren’t such a good thing after all.

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information,” writes Maria Konnikova in a recent article published in the “New York Times.”

Konnikova’s piece reviews a study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, who scanned the brains of young children while asking them to view a letter or shape on an index card and then reproduce it. The kiddos had three options: trace it, draw it from scratch, or type it on a computer.

The conclusion? The greatest brain activity occurred when kids reproduced the image from scratch. James isn’t the only neuroscientist to reach this conclusion. Frank Wilson, author of “The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture,” noted the same effect. “Although the repetitive drills that accompany handwriting lessons seem outdated,” Wilson writes, “such physical instruction will help students succeed.”

The increased brain activity leads to higher levels of language fluency, aid in the development of important knowledge, and, according to a longitudinal by the University of Washington, the production of more words more quickly and more ideas expressed. In the UW study, the better the handwriting, the more activity in the memory, reading, and writing networks of each kid’s brain.

Consider for a moment what this means. Not only is grandpa right, but this research points to perhaps one of the reasons that modern students may struggle with reading, writing, and creative thinking. If the act of physically putting words on paper stimulates the brain and increases literacy, memory, and critical thinking, then removing it from our school curriculums comes at a high cost.

It is this sentiment that prompted the Handwriting in the 21st Century Summit in 2012 and led to a paper published by the National Association of State Boards of Education. Read it here for a breakdown of grade by grade strategies for practicing and improving handwriting with your own children.

Also check out Handwritingforkids.com for a vast array of activities, resources, and articles.

Here are a couple strategies you can start today:

  • Journal: Share a journal with your kids. You write an entry, then they write an entry, back and forth. This has the added benefit of opening up personal lines of communication.

  • Pen pal: Sounds corny and old-fashioned, but most community hospitals and elderly-care centers maintain programs that pair up the elderly with local youth. While it may be a bit of a tough sell, it can open whole new worlds for your son or daughter.

Sources:

Berenger, V., Abbott, R., Jones, J., Wolf, B., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., et al. Early Development of Language by Hand: Composing, Reading, Listening, and Speaking Connections; Three Letter-Writing Modes; and Fast Mapping in Spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29.

Konnikova, M. (2014, June 2). What's Lost as Handwriting Fades. Retrieved June 2, 2014, from The New York Times

Wilson, F. R. (1998). The hand: how its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture. New York: Pantheon Books.

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