There’s a good reason we shouldn’t let handwriting die – it makes children smarter, study reveals

  • Writing by hand still matters in the digital age, researchers argue in a new study
  • They carried out two studies and found positive benefits linked to handwriting
  • The lead author believes schools should include national guidelines that include handwriting training

They say the future involves less handwriting and more typing, but one professor is advocating for the implementation of national guidelines that allow children to receive a minimum of handwriting training at school.

Professor Audrey Van der Meer and colleagues, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, carried out a study and found that choosing handwriting over keyboard-use results in the best learning and memory.

“When you write your shopping list or lecture notes by hand, you simply remember the content better afterwards,” Van der Meer said in a news release published on the university’s website.

The findings of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, support previous studies that have also shown that both children and adults learn more and remember better when writing by hand. 

Analysing brain activity in participants

The topic was previously investigated by Van der Meer and her colleagues in 2017.

The 2017 study involved the examination of the brain activity of 20 students. The more recent study, however, focused on 12 young adults and 12 children – the first time children participated in this type of study.

In both studies, participants wore a hood with over 250 electrodes, which the researchers connected to an EEG to track and record brain wave activity.

Individual examinations took 45 minutes each, and 500 data points per second were received.

Handwriting gives the brain more 'hooks' 

The brains of both young adults and children were found to be much more active when they were writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard, the researchers wrote.

"The use of pen and paper gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain,” said Van der Meer, adding:

“A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.”

These sense experiences, Van der Meer explained, create contact between different parts of the brain and open it up for learning, so that we both learn and remember better.

Based on their study results, she believes that her own and others' studies emphasise the importance of children being challenged to draw and write at an early age, particularly at school.

While Van der Meer does not negate the positive learning aspects of digital learning, she strongly encourages handwriting training.

"Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence" of increased digital activity, she said.

Other studies have also found positive benefits associated with handwriting. A study by the University of Washington, for example, found that writing by hand and by keyboard utilised different brain functions.

Another 2012 study, published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education, found that handwriting could be crucial for helping children learn the alphabet.

National guidelines should ensure handwriting training

Van der Meer believes that national guidelines that ensure children receive at least a minimum of handwriting training should be put in place, and referred to some schools in Norway that have gone completely digital and skipped handwriting training altogether.

Many schools worldwide have shifted to the adoption of digital handwriting in classrooms, as some teachers believe that keyboards create less frustration for learners, in that it takes them a shorter time to write and therefore motivates them to write more than in the case of handwriting.

Van der Meer, however, believes otherwise: "Learning to write by hand is a slower process, but it's important for children to go through the tiring phase of learning to write by hand. The intricate hand movements and the shaping of letters are beneficial in several ways.

“If you use a keyboard, you use the same movement for each letter. Writing by hand requires control of your fine motor skills and senses. It's important to put the brain in a learning state as often as possible. I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I'd take notes by hand during a lecture," she explained.

In order for our brains to develop optimally, Van der Meer says we need to use it for what it's best at: “We need to live an authentic life. We have to use all our senses, be outside, experience all kinds of weather and meet other people.

“If we don't challenge our brain, it can't reach its full potential. And that can impact school performance," she said.

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