Research Indicates Writing by Hand Strengthens the Learning Process

November 5th, 2013 No Comments Other

Writing by hand is an exercise that has all but been replaced by computers, laptops, keypads and touch screens, but a growing body of research suggests that in our switch to digital, we may be skipping a key step in the learning process.

A report co-authored by associate professor Anne Mangen from the National Centre for Reading Education at the University of Stavanger, has examined the available research in a bid to determine why, in what ways, and with what implications keyboard writing may be different from writing by hand.

Studies show that our use of hands for purposive manipulation of tools plays an important role in learning and cognitive development. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, in addition to the sensation of touching a pen and paper.

Unlike typewriting, handwriting requires the writer to shape each letter individually, and additionally, visual attention tends to be restricted to the point where the pen hits the paper.

The feedback the brain receives when we are typing on a keyboard is significantly different.

“The movements involved in writing something by hand appear to play an important role, on level of letter recognition and recall, and word recall,” says Mangen.

“Writing on a keyboard does not entail movements of this kind, as the movement involved when tapping keys on a keyboard does not yield any information about the shape of the particular letter.”

A study carried out by researchers at the University of Marseille showed that different parts of the brain are activated when we read letters that have been learned through handwriting than those we have learned through typing on a keyboard.

One experiment in particular very clearly shows the importance of handwriting to the learning process.

The researchers assigned two groups of adults the same task: they were to learn to write an unknown alphabet that consisted of approximately 20 letters. However, one group was asked to write by hand, while the other group used a keyboard.

When tested at three and six weeks into the experiment, the participants who had learned the alphabet through handwriting were better at recollecting letters and were also more easily able to distinguish between right and reversed letters than those who had used a keyboard.

Brain scans also showed that the Broca’s area, which is responsible for speech production and language comprehension, was activated in the group of adults who had learned through handwriting. In the keyboard-using group, there was little or no activation of this area.

Another reason why handwriting may strengthen the learning process is that it simply takes longer to write by hand than it does to type, which gives the brain more time to process new information.

So how can these findings be implemented in today’s education environment where everything is leaning more and more towards digital?

“It is important to keep in mind the different purposes of writing, and that all writing technologies – old and new – have potentials for use that might be advantageous in certain writing settings and for certain writing purposes, but not for others,” says Mangen.

“In certain writing circumstances where speed, amount of writing, and ease of editing is the main concern (higher education exams), there are obvious advantages to keyboard writing. However, writing is not merely linguistic and psychological, and about planning, revising, producing and composing texts.

At bottom, writing is also a physical, motor activity; knowing what we now know about the close and reciprocal associations between the human body and mind/brain, we should be more aware of the differences on the sensorimotor level brought about by digital technologies.”

She points out that in general, with digital technologies, the relationship between sensorimotor input, such as the tapping on keys on keyboard, or swiping your finger across the screen, are more abstract and less discriminating with respect to the audiovisual outcome – or, what we see and hear as the result of our input.

“We know how fundamental the body is for learning in general; what we are also now beginning to see, is that the body and, in particular the fingers and hands, may also have an important role to play in actual writing and reading processes, on different levels.”

The full report, Digitalizing Literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing, can be found here.



Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

Leave a Reply