With Handwriting on the Decline, Will Student Learning Suffer?

Proficiency on the keyboard, according to the Common Core, adopted in most states, is more important than teaching legible handwriting, reports Maria Kinnikova for The New York Times.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are not so sure.  There is evidence of a connection between handwriting and a wide range of educational development processes.  One example is that reading is learned more quickly when young students begin to write by hand, and they are better at generating ideas and information retention at this point.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”

Researchers have found that three areas of the brain are activated in adults when they read and write.  Children who typed or traced a letter had a weaker activation.  Dr. Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, used a scanner to come to the conclusion that the “messiness” or variability of handwriting might be a learning tool in itself.  The same thing, she found, was true when one child physically formed the letters and another child simply watched.  Her discovery was that the actual effort of writing provides the benefits.

Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, went even further.  She observed that when a child composed by handwriting he composed more quickly and and expressed more ideas.  In older children, the better their handwriting, the greater neural activation in working memory, and in the reading and writing networks.

As cursive writing seems to be nearing its demise, experts have found that for brain-injured individuals, writing can take on an interesting form.  In some, cursive writing is unimpaired; in others, printing is still able to be executed.  It suggests that the two types of handwriting activate different parts of the brain.  Some believe cursive writing could be a path to treating dyslexia.

Pam A Mueller of Princeton, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, both psychologists, have observed that students take better notes by hand, which allows the processing of the information heard, and the re-framing of it.  This, in turn, produces a reflection and manipulation process that can lead to improved understanding and memory encoding.

As a result of their studies, it became apparent that taking notes on a computer may not be the best way to learn the material, reports Cindi May, writing for Scientific American.  In tests, although computer based note-takers had notes that were often verbatim, those who took notes by hand did better on conceptual understanding, and in applying and integrating the material.

One idea brought forth by the studies was a suggestion that laptop note-takers should be advised to write summations of the lecture rather than typing the lecture word-by-word.  This might cause students to think about the information rather than just about transcribing it, the psychologists posited.

The students to whom this was suggested seemed not to be able to stop the exact note-taking, possibly because there is a mindless component to typing.  Even if the test on the notes is taken days later, when, theoretically students could have time to study their computer notes, the hand-writers still had higher test scores.

Graeme Paton writes in The Daily Telegraph that in the UK, the decline in traditional handwriting has been linked to the overuse of technology in the classroom.  The government has pledged to improve standards and give handwriting more attention in the national curriculum.

Commenting on the latest study, Tony Sewell, an education writer and former teacher, said: “Clarity of handwriting isn’t just important in ensuring exam questions are answered in a clear manner, but is a critical part of the learning process. The fluid motion of writing and rewriting notes helps to instill the data in the mind more efficiently than the process of typing, making it an effective revision tool which aides information recall.”

Many UK teachers admit that scores on tests and projects have had to be reduced in some cases when students’ handwriting is illegible. A whopping 82% of teachers believe the deterioration of good handwriting skills is due to the overuse of technological instruments.