Love Letters #1: Handwriting in the 21st Century

This is the first post in our Love Letters Series about the importance of handwriting.

Love Letters: Handwriting in the 21st Century

Everything is digital nowadays. Smart phones, tablets, touch screen monitors…all you need to do is swipe, tap, or “sign” with a finger and you’re good to go. Typing and voice-to-text software have substituted one’s need to put pen to paper. 

With all this technology, it’s hard to determine handwriting’s place in the world and in child development. So, it begs the question: why do children need to learn handwriting? 

Handwriting is considered a fading practice as computers and tablets enter the academic arena. Teachers today spend less time on handwriting instruction. However, handwriting still consumes much of a student’s school day, spending 25-50% of their class time engaged in paper-and-pencil tasks. 

When a child struggles with handwriting, a variety of consequences occur:

  • Teachers assigning lower marks for the writing quality due to poor legibility
  • Slow writing speed may limit a child’s ability to plan and compose thoughts and ideas fluently
  • Difficulties learning higher-order writing processes, such as grammar and punctuation
  • Children may take longer to finish assignments than their peers
  • Students may use informal language in formal papers or commit plagiarism
  • They are often accused of being lazy, affecting their behavior and self-esteem
  • Writing avoidance, or procrastinating tasks/assignments that require writing

Why technology isn’t a substitute for writing

Technology can be beneficial for a few reasons. For one, keyboarding is standardized and repetitive, producing words faster and legible with minimal spelling and grammar issues, thanks to editing software. Sounds great, but typing does not assist children in developing crucial brain pathways for learning and information retention needed for cognitive skills, such as reading or filtering information. 

One study found that learning letters through writing activated neural networks to recognize and construct letters while typing alone did not. 

Another study noted that when people type class notes rather than write them, they are more inclined to type verbatim compared to those who took them by hand. But because the individual is so focused on catching every word, they are not able to internalize or process the information said to them. This limits their ability to effectively understand and recall what they have heard. 

What are the benefits of handwriting? 

The truth is that handwriting is a rather complex task. It requires sensory, motor, and perceptual integration in order to recognize letters, space them appropriately, and write in straight line, as well as fine motor coordination to write letters accurately. Working memory is also necessary to process and write words efficiently. 

It wasn’t until the start of the 21st century when handwriting was recognized as a valuable step in cognitive development.

Not only does handwriting/note-taking help with reading and selective processing of important data, there are other benefits as well:

  • Handwriting is a more engaging method to compose focused and consistent thoughts, as it uses more parts of the brain than typing.
  • Handwriting is like a fingerprint. 
    No one else has the exact same style. That’s why it is more meaningful when one gets a handwritten letter than an email. Think of those Valentine’s Day cards you got in elementary school! 
  • Handwriting activates the brain to assign meaning to what is being written, whether that is to study, self-reflect, or communicate with others. 

Tablets vs. Paper?

Touch screen interfaces, such as an iPad, maintain the concept of writing but alter the “feel”. Limited friction from the glass versus traditional writing on paper, or the change in grip pressure from a stylus compared to a pencil, are small mechanics with big effects.

Regardless of advancing technology, handwriting skills provide so much growth and development for children. It’s not a question of whether or not we “need” it in the future. The basics of handwriting skills lay the foundation for working with tools, cooking, drawing and painting, hand-eye coordinated sports, and so much more.

“The Importance of Handwriting in the Digital Age”, Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, MD, FAAP.
“Is Handwriting Dead? Hardly. We Need It More Than Ever”, Aleka Thrash. Cornerstone University.
Karavanidou, E. (2017). Is Handwriting Relevant in the Digital Era? Antistasis, 7. 153-167.
James, K.H. (2017). The Importance of Handwriting on the Development on the Literate Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 
Case-Smith, Jane. (2005). Occupational Therapy for Children, 5th ed, pg. 587-589.

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