There is more to the teaching of handwriting than just teaching how to write. While many advocate the dropping of the teaching of handwriting from the curriculum as it may not be relevant in a digital age, the irony is that the cognitive development encouraged by the teaching of handwriting, is most certainly necessary in the digital age! ‘We don’t need handwriting because we type these days’, is rather one dimensional thinking if the ongoing research into the link between handwriting and cognitive development is anything to go by.
In the digital age where children are being reared for occupations which do not as yet exist, the demand for higher order thinking skills is greater than ever before. So where does learning to write fit in? How will teaching handwriting, help to encourage higher order thinking skills?
Research has demonstrated a definite link between handwriting and cognitive and perceptual-motor development. Furthermore, teaching handwriting encourages the ability to spell, read and comprehend, vital skills for those wanting to educate themselves at tertiary level. There is also a definite correlation between graphic maturity and academic performance.
Research into the value of learning to write
Research indicating the need to maintain the teaching of handwriting outweighs any research suggesting that dispensing with it would have no impact on learning development.
Cognitive psychologist, Dehaene’s research indicates that handwriting stimulates the activation of neural pathways in the brain which facilitates learning. James (2012) in her study of brain function during the writing process in young children found that children who draw letters freehand showed increased activity in the three areas of the brain which are engaged when an adult reads and writes. The same test conducted using typing or tracing showed no evidence of such brain activity. Research also indicates a difference in brain activity between printing and cursive writing.
When the brain and hand are engaged in the same task, the brain forms neural pathways as it concentrates on the formation of letters. Research conducted by Berninger (University of Washington) and Veray (University of Marseilles), showed that different brain activity occurs when a child writes and when a child types. Furthermore, research indicates that writing encourages ideas generation a vital component in the problem solving process, which requires the higher order thinking skills of analyzing, evaluating and creating.
Children who type rather than write are also less likely to engage in reflection of content learnt. Processing of what is important and what is not, is absent. Reflection on and repeated revisiting of the learning material, increases assimilation and understanding. Hence the link between handwriting skills and academic performance.
Mueller and Opperheimer’s research indicated that students who took down notes by hand did better on conceptual questions in a test than did students who took notes on a computer. Conceptual thinking is the ability to identify and integrate seemingly unrelated facts in order to solve a problem.
Learning to write, leads to learning to learn
The student who writes is more likely to use critical thinking than the student who uses an electronic device. Writing notes requires active listening, discrimination between important and unimportant information, all very important skills for successful academic performance. Students who learn passively do not achieve academically as well as students who study actively, which requires intentional engagement with the learning material.
While understanding how to work with electronic devices in the 21st century,is important, it does not follow that handwriting as a skill should be dropped. These various skills can and should be taught concurrently and applied in appropriate learning contexts.
As an aside, I make mention of research which is emerging indicating that the light transmitted from tablets and i-pads, have a detrimental effect on the development of the eye in young children as well as brain function on old and young alike.