Handwriting Shown to Aid in Learning


Though some educators are calling it quits on teaching handwriting, there is new evidence that suggests perhaps this is a premature decision. Many neuroscientists and psychologists are pointing to obvious links between the almost lost art of penmanship and a well-rounded educational development. According to the newest research, when young people learn how to write by hand, they are aided in learning to read faster, retaining information better and becoming more creative writers.

A psychologist at Paris’ College de France, Stanislas Dehaene, pointed out the fact that when people write, there is an automatic activation of a neural circuit that is unique to the act of writing. He goes on to say that this circuit is making special contributions that science is just now beginning to realize. What is understood is that it seems to make the act of learning easier.

As handwriting and cursive skills are being dropped from school curricula, it could mean greater learning difficulties for young minds. An Indiana University psychologist, Dr. Karin James, led a study in 2012 that lends valuable corroboration to that argument.

Her subjects for the experiment were children who were not yet reading or writing. They were shown a shape or a letter drawn on an index card. They were then asked to duplicate it by typing it on a keyboard, tracing it on a piece of paper with dotted lines or drawing it freehand on blank paper. Afterward, the children were shown the same image while inside a brain scanner.

Dr. James and her colleagues discovered that the mode of duplication made a huge difference in the children’s brain activity. Three distinct areas of the brain showed boosted activity in the subjects who had drawn their letter or shape freehand. These were the same areas that are triggered when adults read or write: the inferior frontal gyrus, left fusiform gyrus and posterior parietal cortex. Conversely, the children who duplicated the shape or letter using the other modes showed little change. In fact, the activation was found to be considerably weaker.

The differences, according to Dr. James, could be attributed to the inherent messiness of free-form handwriting. Typing a single stroke on a keyboard or tracing along a dotted line do not require the same brain activity that planning and executing the writing of a letter does. Plus, the process is liable to result in a variety of outcomes. A learning tool can even be made of that variability. Dr. James said that a child is likely to learn from having drawn a messy letter. Dr. James also observed differences between the brain activity of a child who drew a letter and one who simply watched one being drawn.

There are also indications that printing and cursive activate two different brain networks. The work of psychologist, Dr. Virginia Berninger, of the University of Washington, has pointed out that typing letters on a keyboard, writing them in print style and in cursive writing are  all related to separately distinct patterns of the brain. Dr. Berninger has suggested that writing in the cursive style may aid in training abilities of self-control in ways that the other writing modes do not.

Indeed, the ability to type on a keyboard is essential to any individual’s future, no matter what they may choose to do in life. If, however, handwriting, in particular cursive writing, are aids to not only learning, but improving already learned abilities, perhaps educators ought to reconsider removing these vital skills from their curricula.

Opinion by Stacy Lamy


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