Is handwriting dead?

QUITE A NUMBER of people think that handwriting as an essential skill is obsolete. We don’t need it anymore because advances in modern technology have replaced it. This may be true to a certain extent; however, writing is not simply an instrument of communication – it is also an instrument of learning. Computers and some forms of modern technology shape us into passive participants of life and learning; whereas handwriting engages us in a concrete activity that activates our brain in completely different and more important ways than computers, iPads and iPhones do.

So handwriting is not simply about “out with the old and in with the new”. Handwriting skills play a major role in the development of learning, memory, intelligence, coordination and the brain in general.

Anne Mangen is an associate professor of literacy and reading research, as well as a reading specialist at The Reading Centre based at the University of Stavanger campus in Norway. She co-wrote a paper called “Advances in Haptics” together with Jean-Luc Velay of the University of Marseilles, France.

What are/is haptics? Haptics revolves around touch and the way we communicate via our touch sense. In technology, haptics uses machines to give feedback to a user by ‘touching’ them in a certain way. Think of a video game or your mobile phone as it vibrate, alerting you to an incoming call or text message.

In a learning environment, haptics is the use of touch in the process of learning, e.g. reading while using one’s hands to hold a book and turn pages, rather than reading while holding an iPad. Braille is a haptic way of reading. Writing is a haptic expression. Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. How and why?

Different parts of the brain are activated when we read letters we have learned during handwriting than when we have recognised them while keyboarding. The key lies in the difference between the activities of visualising and recognising. What is the difference? Recognising is about retrieving something from memory. Visualising is about using our brain in the creation process.

Anne Mangen’s special interest lies in the hands-on, multi-sensory approach to learning. She sees learning to write as a form of reading. Our mind reads the letters we write and then internalises them onto our inner scratchpad. Jean-Luc Valey and Anne Mangen tested this idea on a group of volunteers. Their task was to learn a completely new (made up) language. They could choose between learning the language by handwriting or by computer. Those who learned it by handwriting showed better recognition and memory results. There was even more activation in the Broca region of the brain. For those who don’t know, the Broca region is in charge of the development of speech in language.

Let’s go through how the learning process works ….

  • Handwriting starts in the brain.
  • A mental image of the letters about to be copied is created.
  • A signal to recreate these shapes is sent to the hand and arm.
  • This process is automatic as an adult.

With repeated practice neural pathways are built and strengthened. Kind of like superhighways in the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Execution of writing is driven not only by neural impulses and signals but also by personality. We are more than our brain; we are also the emotional state, mood, thoughts, etc., at the time of writing.

  • Writing is a product of stored knowledge.
  • Difficulty in the production of writing is due to a lack of this intimate stored knowledge.
  • Writing commands are stored in the brain and not in the muscles.
  • We know this to be true, otherwise our writing would change depending on the movement of our body.

Why is learning to write important? What does it give us that an iPad, computer or iPhone cannot?

  • It develops our attention span.
  • It provides regulated stimulation.
  • It builds impulse control.
  • It’s similar to the playing of an instrument.
  • There is repetitive manipulation of fingers and thumbs.
  • It harnesses emotional energy.
  • It develops functional productivity.
  • It helps to portray which hemisphere is dominant. This influences the ability to learn.
  • It calms the dance of the emotional mind and helps focus attention.
  • It retrains the brain in learning disabilities such as ADHD.
  • It gives the brain a ‘musical rhythm’.

TV is a passive engagement of the brain. Handwriting is an active engagement. Exposure to TV prolongs the right brain’s processing style, and delays the left brain’s processing style or developmental readiness for learning. If the brain is not ready, then there is turmoil when a child starts school.

TV and computer comprehension require different hemisphere activation than reading. Reading employs the left brain beta (waking consciousness) waves. TV employs the right brain’s alpha (relaxation) waves. All forms of writing increase the left brain. Any kind of bodily movement increases neural activity. If the brain is not engaged, there can be no learning.

Maria Montessori said that the hand is central in developing the intellect. The hand and brain are an integrated system of perception, cognition and action. Intelligence is embedded in the hand. Writing on a computer interferes with the ability of the writer to form a sufficient mental representation of text. Scrolling disrupts the user’s sense of physical structure and their ability to form a global perspective of the text.

Spatial mental representations of text are known to be useful for reading comprehension. People who read linear text rather than hypertext comprehend more, remember more, and learn more. Characters in digital texts on digital devices have no status of external memory. This means you cannot point to the iPad, or Kindle to prompt its memory of where you read something. A book is an external aid to memory.

The body plays a role in perception. Comprehension and reconstruction of text is not only based on content, gist and meaning of story, but also on composition, layout, and physical structure of text. Physical sense of text is important to the way we mentally reconstruct text. This is done via paper, which gives us tactile clues. There is detachment between hand and eye when using a keypad or keyboard.

Individual effort is applied in letter production. When typing, the letters are ready made. Therefore there is no graphomotor involvement. The use of machines in writing leads to impersonalisation. It masks one’s hand and character.

All of this shows that handwriting is a lot more than just a mechanical action. The majority of writing first starts in the brain, inside your visual scratchpad, incorporating your audio attention and visual memory. Writing depends on memorising the form of every letter. An audio element (inner voice) and visual element (feedback) work together.

Computers replace the mechanical aspect of writing, but not the intellectual aspect. That is why they are no substitute to handwriting. Handwriting is key in the kind of brain development and processes required for better and improved learning for life.

This article is based on the notes I took from a meeting I had with Anne Mangen in Stavanger, Norway, in 2012.

Posted by Jasmin on Jul 13, 2012

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