Don’t Be Fooled: Why Teaching Handwriting Remains Essential

Modern technology has dramatically shifted the way we communicate. Letters and notes have been replaced by email and text messages, and children begin keyboard use at a very young age. Such cultural changes have prompted some to deem handwriting obsolete. These people argue that computers and phones have replaced “old-fashioned” handwriting and that schools don’t need to include it in the curriculum. In fact, the Common Core standards in many states left cursive handwriting from their list of required school subjects. In these changing times, when there are so many academic concepts for schools to cover, some may wonder: is teaching students to write by hand necessary?

Despite current educational trends, scientific evidence reveals that spending instructional time on handwriting has clear benefits to the development of skills that affect performance in all subjects. Writing, it turns out, is much more than a mechanical function better accomplished by a machine.

An Indiana University study1 examined and compared brain activity in pre-literate children who were presented with three methods of letter instruction: typing, tracing, and writing by hand. In the end, learning letters through writing produced the highest neural engagement and development. The undeveloped muscle coordination of very young children requires them to concentrate and work to replicate a letter, thus more successfully imprinting it in their memory than simply tracing a letter or pressing a key. Mastering handwriting depends upon the acquisition of several underlying skills like visual perception, finger dexterity, upper extremity strength, and posture.

Writing by hand also requires a child’s brain to categorize—slants, curves, size, and details—which sharpens reasoning skills. Because their early efforts to print are not perfect, children learn to determine the essential characteristics of each letter that distinguish it from all others. (They can recognize what makes a G a G even if theirs doesn’t look exactly like one on paper or on a keyboard.) And because cursive writing has more varieties than printing, students amass a broader catalog of letter representation.

But handwriting isn’t simply useful in aiding letter recognition. Because it activates several cognitive skills simultaneously, writing by hand works the brain in a way that trains and readies it for other complex tasks. Psychologists at the University of Washington2 asked a group of elementary students to write down preliminary ideas for an essay, some using handwriting and others on a keyboard. Interestingly, the students who brainstormed by hand rather than on a computer came up with more ideas and better compositions.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Researchers from Princeton University3 compared the recall and understanding of notetakers who used laptops to those who wrote notes by hand. Proponents of laptop use have long contended that students can concentrate more fully on the content, support, and organization of their thoughts when they aren’t slowed down by the arduous task of manual note taking.

What the study revealed, however, was that though laptop users are able to record more, students who take notes by hand are able to process information much more efficiently in both the short and long term. They discovered that students who take notes on laptops tend to take notes word-for-word and without much evaluation, while those who handwrite, because they can’t physically write fast enough to record everything, must listen, organize, and summarize as they write.

Additionally, even when instructed to transcribe ideas in their own words, the laptop notetakers in the study tended to record information verbatim. Written note taking requires synthesis and analysis, thus engaging more of the brain and allowing the student to be an active participant—not just a depository—in the learning process.

When Barbara B. Baker founded Challenger School, she did so in part because public schools had gone away from proven teaching methods in favor of educational fads. At Challenger School, we are not blown by the winds and whims of popular pedagogy.

Consequently, our students consistently perform incredibly well on standardized tests, and many experience enduring success after graduation. Today, in handwriting and in every subject, we stick with what works.

  • We instill good habits from the start: how to sit; how to hold the pencil; where to place the paper; and how to move the whole forearm, not just the fingers or the hand.
  • We emphasize logic, beginning with what students know (shapes, lines) and progressing to printing and then cursive in a logical order.
  • We challenge students and foster independence. Much as we teach students to solve math problems without relying on calculators, we recognize the importance of being able to read and write in cursive and not being dependent on keyboards and software.

There is no doubt that advances in technology have improved and streamlined our world in many ways. Challenger champions invention and innovation; in fact, word processing and computer programming are important components of our curriculum. We continue to investigate and embrace technologies that are beneficial for our students.

Though popular culture may assert that handwriting is a dying art that can afford to be lost, we at Challenger know better. We’ve seen the effects of writing by hand, specifically in cursive—how it activates brain functions related to fine motor skills, logic, and analysis, equipping students for long-term scholastic success. Challenger School will continue to rely on proven methods to teach not only penmanship but our entire curriculum so that students have the tools to achieve their potential.

1 James, K. H. and Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1, 32–42.

2 Berninger, V. W., Vaughan, K. B., Abbott, R. D., Abbott, S. P., Rogan, L. W., Brooks, A., et al. (1997). Treatment of handwriting fluency problems in beginning writing: transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology 89, 652–666.

3 Mueller, P.A., and Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science 25: 1159–1168.

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