Today's schoolchildren get about one-fourth the handwriting instruction their parents got, and many never learn cursive at all, thanks to the rise of computers and new education guidelines that de-emphasize penmanship. That concerns some educators and brain researchers, who say putting pencil to paper stimulates brain circuits involved with memory, attention, motor skills, and language in a way punching a keyboard doesn't.
"There is this assumption that we live in the computer age, and we don't need handwriting anymore. That's wrong," says Virginia Berninger, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington.
Priming the Preschool Brain
Indiana University psychologist Karin James, PhD, recently published a study looking at brain scans of preschoolers before and after they learned to produce letters, either by printing or typing. Before the lesson, the children couldn't decipher between a random shape and a letter, and their brains responded similarly to each. After they learned to hand-draw a letter, brain regions needed for reading lit up at the sight of the letter like they do in a literate adult. Learning to type a letter yielded no such change.
James suspects that practicing a sloppy letter over and over, rather than just pecking a perfect one on a keyboard, helps a child recognize it better later. Numerous studies have shown that preschoolers who practice handwriting read better in elementary school. But the benefits don't end there.
Handwriting also requires concentration and teaches brain circuits responsible for motor coordination, vision, and memory to work together. "If in the future we were to take away teaching handwriting altogether, I worry there could be real negative impacts on children's development," James says.
The Value of Longhand
Timed right, cursive also comes with some unique advantages. Berninger's research suggests kids who link their letters via cursive get a better handle on what those words look like and end up being better spellers, she says. Cursive also allows them to compose their thoughts faster than in block handwriting or via typing (at least until about seventh grade, when their brains become mature enough to manage two-handed typing quickly).
"I always encourage my own students to take handwritten notes," James says.
Writing Step by Step
Educational psychologist Virginia Berninger, PhD, offers these guidelines for introducing various writing tools:
Strengthen motor skills by playing with clay, stringing beads, working through mazes, and connecting dots with arrows to form letters.
Kindergarten to second grade
Master block letters.
Third to fourth grade
Continue to write by hand while introducing typing by touch (not just hunt and peck).
Many tablets allow writing directly on screen with a pen or stylus. Writing by hand doesn't mean not using technology.