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Handwriting Helps Students Learn More

Categories: Industry Insights

Reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic.

The so-called “Three Rs” have been the foundation of primary education worldwide for as long as we remember. But because of advances in technology and the increased use of digital devices, it has become increasingly common for classrooms to eliminate handwriting instruction from the curriculum. How does this affect our children’s development, and what do experts say about a future with only two Rs?

A growing amount of research underscores the importance of handwriting and the brain development it stimulates. Studies show handwriting helps students learn more, express more ideas faster, remember things longer and perform better. Focusing on handwriting with young kids can help them grow academically in a variety of ways.

Researchers at Indiana University, for instance, conducted brain scans on preliterate children ages 4 to 6 to determine whether printing letters, tracing them or typing is the most effective method in the learning process. The children tried each method before receiving a functional MRI scan in a device designed to look like a spaceship.

The results?

If children wrote by hand, the experts saw greatly enhanced neural activity in three areas of the brain. These areas are also activated in adults when they read and write.

“Only the printing seems to recruit the network that is used in the brain for reading,” said Dr. Karin James, an associate professor with Indiana’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.

James also pointed out that students who struggle to write often struggle to read. The American Occupational Therapy Association agrees, noting that the development of a child’s handwriting can provide clues to developmental problems that can hinder a child’s learning.

The Indiana University study is just one of many studies to look at how handwriting affects learning. Good handwriting can also play a role in classroom performance. It can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad penmanship could make a score decline as far as the 16th percentile, said an education professor at Vanderbilt University in this article in The Wall Street Journal.

A researcher at  Florida International University found a similar link. She looked at students’ grades on fine-motor writing tasks in pre-K and their grades in elementary school. Those who did well on fine motor tasks had an average grade point average of 3.02 in math and 2.84 in reading — a B grade. Those who struggled with fine motor tasks had an average GPA of 2.30 in math and 2.12 in reading, the equivalent of a C.

Psychologists at Princeton and UCLA have also reported that students learn better when they take notes by hand than by typing on a keyboard. This doesn’t necessarily mean computers are a problem. Rather, writing by hand allows students to process a lecture’s content and reframe it. This process of reflection and manipulation can lead to better understanding and memory encoding, according to The New York Times.

And according to this research, done by a professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway and a neurophysiologist at the University of Marseille in France, writing by hand strengthens the learning process, while typing on a keyboard could impair it. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions and from the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. This response is significantly different from what we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

An article in Psychology Today titled “Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter” highlights similar findings. A professor at the University of Washington, for example, studied children in grades two, four and six, finding they wrote words faster and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand instead of with a keyboard.

“The benefits to brain development are similar to what you get with learning to play a musical instrument,” the article said. “Not everybody can afford music lessons, but everybody has access to pencil and paper. Not everybody can afford a computer for their kids — but maybe such kids are not as deprived as we think.”

Sometimes the simple things are the most valuable. But in today’s digital world, it’s easy to forget that the simple things can have the most beneficial impact on our children’s development.