The Literacy Workshop

Handwriting activates different neural networks

September 5, 2018   Tags: , ,

My mother, a former teacher, taught me how to print before I went to kindergarten. I remember how much I enjoyed sitting at the kitchen table at the farm carefully learning how to form each letter. It was the first thing I learned after my ABC’s and nursery rhymes. Printing and handwriting were always something that I felt pride in and excelled at. To this day I find great joy in helping children master their handwriting skills. One thing I don’t understand is why most children no longer learn how to write properly in school?
In recent years, I have noticed that more students have poor letter formation and have not mastered handwriting. There are likely many reasons why children’s handwriting skills have changed. I believe that we need to re-emphasize the benefits of the written word over the typed word and the following paragraphs explore why.

The benefits of handwriting on academic performance

There are so many quantitative studies that prove the benefits of handwriting versus typing on academic performance. Some talk about the distraction of multitasking as the culprit for poorer academic performance in computer users and others talk about the cognitive effects of handwriting on levels of higher order functioning.
Just yesterday I was introduced to a new aspect of my own personal handwriting debate while listening to the program Tapestry on CBC radio. The program introduced me to looking at the importance of handwriting in a completely different way.

  1. The Quantitative Effects Handwriting

    Current research is proving that handwriting is more important than we thought and schools moving away from it could be a mistake. A study published Karin James (2012) wondered if you can prepare the brain to learn how to read faster by copying or tracing letters? James found that very young children who free hand draw letters, rather than trace them, learn to recognize letters faster. The production of motor skills is tied to visual recognition skills and therefore, writing early on can be a way to reading faster developmentally.
    Pam Mueller and Danny Openheimer (2014) looked at taking notes on a laptop and the ability to retain information. He found that the laptop notes impeded retention when compared to people who wrote their notes. Openheimer believes that when we type, we don’t have to process the information because people can type faster than write. When we handwrite, we reflect and have motor memory, which encodes information at a higher level. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.
    Victoria Berninger (2006) demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns. Each of these forms of communication resulted in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but they also expressed more ideas.
    Brain imaging suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation. Children with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks. Handwriting affected what kinds of essays would they produce and the handwriting students came up with better ideas and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

  2. Qualitative Impacts of Using Handwriting

    Jane Vincent (2017) conducted a study of about 650 students from 10 countries and found that most students favoured handwriting and the role it played in academics. The students stated that handwritten notes leads to greater retention of data than typed notes. They also experienced difficulty in writing Math and science formulas using computers. However, advantages of spell checking, searching for info and legibility were all noted for computer usage. On Sunday September 2, the CBC radio Tapestry program, focused on how to get out of our heads and into our hands. Mary Hynes interviewed a Zen Buddhist priest named Ed Brown, who teaches Handwriting and Mindfulness Workshops. Ed Brown bases his workshops on the work of Vamala Rodgers in her book called Your Handwriting Can Change Your Life. Handwriting is seen as a reflection of our innermost thoughts and feelings.
    Rodgers worked on changing his handwriting letter formation for 40 days and found that by changing the structure, he changed his life in a way that his head cannot explain. New and positive channels seemed to open for him in his life that previously seemed to be blocked. A zen meditation that was shared is, if you look at your hands, is that inside or outside?
    In the second part of the show, Mary Hynes interviewed Salman Khattak, who is trained in Western and Arabic caligraphy. He said that if you aren’t doing things with your hands, then you aren’t living fully. The point that Salman made that I found very interesting is that your hands are more than a third of all the sensory connections to the brain, which is a huge piece of your intelligence. The motor and sensory neurons are activated and doing something new with your hands leads to empowerment. Out of all our senses, it is the sense of touch that produces what we do with our hands. Expressions using our hands are extremely powerful because they are permanent record of the spirit of that person at that time.
    When I first started putting my ideas together, it was all about looking up the scientific evidence to prove the importance of keeping handwriting practices in the schools. Beyond science-based research, the Tapestry broadcast took my interest in the Handwriting topic to a whole new level. It provoked deeper inquiry about the importance of handwriting as an expression of who we are.