10 Reasons to Teach Handwriting in the Digital Age 

Explicit, Systematic Handwriting Instruction for Every Learner

There is no question that the world has entered a new age of technology, we do everything digitally now, hand written letters have become charmingly quaint rarities, and the idea of submitting a school essay or work article in cursive ink on paper seems archaic, even unprofessional.  We shouldn’t be so hasty though to relegate handwriting to an artisanal craft of yesteryear.  Scientists are discovering that it is detrimental to fully replace handwriting with typing. Teaching handwriting promotes brain activity that we don’t see when students learn letter and word formation through typing alone, and this neural stimulation leads to rich rewards.

1. Learning and Practicing Handwriting Results in Greater Brain Activity

This is really the grandparent of reasons to teach handwriting because it’s at the core of all the other benefits. MRI studies show that learning and practicing handwriting stimulates more parts of the brain than typing, tracing, or the “see and say” method of learning to read. This is a big deal. Enhanced, widespread activity means that we are building more neural networks across the brain, and that’s a great thing because not only does handwriting become easier, but so do the other skills we’re learning, like reading, language recognition and interpretation. Even better, we get to use those networks again and again, so when we do tasks that are new to us, the brain isn’t starting from scratch. It’s similar to building roads for travel: one road will get you from A to B, but suppose you build a network of roads to get you from A to B in many different ways, you’ll end up with multiple routes not just between A and B but also C,D,E,F,G and onwards to places you don’t even know exist yet! Ultimately learning and practicing handwriting will help other things feel easier to us in the future.

2. Teaching Handwriting Makes Reading Easier From the Start

Children learning to print letters use the same visual processing systems for letter recognition that adults use when they read. By contrast, children who haven’t been printing things by hand show no difference in brain activity between recognizing letters and simple shapes. This means that children who’ve been trained in printing letters have activated pathways in the brain for reading even before they start to read words.

3. Handwriting Uses Simultaneous Processing Leading to Easier Reading

Frequent practice with forming letters and words helps students to better recognize words when reading. In fact, studies have shown that explicit handwriting instruction produces improved reading skills without any additional reading intervention! This is because handwriting instruction uses and encourages Simultaneous Processing, which is a way of saying that the brain is able to see the bigger picture, a skill that we use constantly throughout our lives. When learning literacy our brain starts by sequential processing, sounding out one letter at a time. But then we move to simultaneous processing where, instead of perceiving one thing at a time, we perceive the whole. So rather than sounding out solo letters we say words, instead of understanding one word at a time, we grasp the meaning of a whole sentence, a paragraph, an entire story.

4. Handwriting Builds Hand-Eye Coordination and Spatial Awareness

This sounds obvious, but did you know that handwriting specifically connects our motor skills system to the visual system used for letter perception? We don’t just use those neural networks to form letters, we also use them to figure out how much space we should leave between individual letters, and between entire words, as well as where letters should sit in relation to lines on the paper. The act of perceiving and producing letters at the same time makes for strong, efficient pathways in the brain. Remember the stronger our neural networks are, the more automatic our skills become, and without that coordination and spatial awareness we’d be left with a jumble of letters to be deciphered.

5. Handwriting Aids Fine Motor Skills, Good Posture and Eye Health

Handwriting having physical benefits might come as a surprise, but handwriting employs far more of the body than we think.  When we are learning to write, we strengthen our hand and arm muscles and develop fine motor skills with our growing use of refined precise pencil strokes and pressure.  To facilitate these fine motor skills students adopt a relaxed, stable posture, using one arm to balance as the other one grasps the pencil. The use of pencil and paper also permits a welcome break for our eyes from backlit screens.

6. Language Skills Improve When Students Learn Handwriting

When students frequently work on their handwriting, they are connecting with the letters they are forming and the words they are writing. For students in the early stages of writing and learning to spell, they can practice their sounds as they form letters. For students who are writing words, handwriting gives them time to actively think about how the letters sound together. 

7. Handwriting Increases Creativity and Improves Composition

Perhaps you’ve heard several writers say that they prefer to write their first draft, or do all their planning, by hand. Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, JK Rowling, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and Quentin Tarantino are some familiar names who’ve expressed that putting pen to paper boosts their creativity and leads to a more polished, thoroughly thought out draft. This isn’t mere romantic whimsy, the act of handwriting does indeed produce a higher standard of both creativity and composition. Handwriting engages more cognitive processing than typing, and is an intrinsically slower process giving you more time to contemplate each sentence before it flows onto the page. Students who’ve had handwriting instruction show improved organization and elaboration of ideas.

8. Practicing Handwriting Improves Academic Confidence

Feeling like you are struggling in any area of school can be debilitating for a child, and cause anxiety which manifests as lack of interest and avoidance of that topic. Since teaching handwriting recruits the area of the brain used for fluent reading before children have learned to read, it primes them for early success in reading which breeds confidence in their capacity to learn.

9. Putting Pen to Paper Decreases Distractions  

Even as adults, we know the struggle of mindlessly scrolling the internet. For students, constant access to their devices puts the temptation of games and off-task behavior in close reach. Putting screens aside in favor of paper can help prevent distractions and allow students to focus on their work.

10. Handwriting has Life Long Benefits

This list has focused on handwriting in children, but taking the time to jot your thoughts down manually is a gift that keeps on giving throughout our lives. We recruit specific memory networks when we write things down, so we’re boosting our memory skills. It also makes us more efficient learners, even as adults. People who take handwritten notes instead of typing them, have better retention of the information.  We don’t just transcribe words when we use a pen and paper, we are listening, interpreting information and actively concentrating on understanding concepts in order to pick out the most relevant points to write down. Conversely, typing is a skill we do so quickly that we place the focus on getting as many words down as possible to replicate the information without trying to understand what it is we’re hearing or seeing.

The take away from all of this is that handwriting still has a place as a fundamental tool in education. The great news is we don’t need to spend a lot of time teaching it for students to reap the rewards, regular instruction is the key. Combining keyboard skills with a little bit of daily handwriting practice will ensure our young learners are well equipped to thrive in the digital age.

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