Leiden Psychology Blog

Why we are doomed when handwriting disappears

Why we are doomed when handwriting disappears

A recent study shows that computer use in schools is negatively correlated with academic performance. I say it’s time to start emphasizing handwriting in schools again.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development recently published a report, based on data collected in 70 countries, that suggests that the more time students spend using computers and tablets at school, the poorer their learning performance.  In some countries that have invested heavily in integrating IT into their education system, students’ reading ability actually deteriorated. In countries such as Japan, on the other hand, where computers are hardly used at all in education, students performed very well academically, for example in mathematics.  Now, given that I am a behavioral scientist, it is not difficult for me to suggest a long list of confounds that could have biased these results: differences in educational systems, for instance, or course profiles, emphases on specific courses, etc.  However, for the sake of this blog, I am going to assume that computer use is not necessarily a good thing in education.

Most people will agree that the ability to read and write is imperative in our society.  These two skills are intimately intertwined.  I think the ability to write makes it easier to read, because a writer has learned to form letter shapes and to associate them with sounds, and then to string a number of shapes together to form words that have meaning; that is the purpose of language.  If you learn how to form letters by hand, with a lot of effort, it will be easier to recognize them in printed form, just because of all the time you have spent on perfecting that pesky “f”, for example.

Good thing we all learn to write in school, right?  Well, an increasing number of schools in the United States are eliminating cursive writing from their school curriculums. Cursive writing is considered an obsolete skill, even though recent studies suggest that handwriting may actually have neural benefits. Gimenez and colleagues, for example, showed in 2014 that in a task that involved deciding whether the first sounds of a word matched the name of an object shown in a picture, children with better handwriting displayed more activation in their right inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis than children with poorer handwriting. That specific brain area has been associated with decoding and phonological processing. Reading skill, or even general cognitive development might be plausible confounds there, but I’ll leave them aside for now.  My point is that a motor skill (handwriting) and a cognitive skill (letter recognition) go hand in hand, and that there is neural evidence to reflect that.

In my own personal experience,  I find it much easier to think something through on a sheet of paper and with pen in hand.  I can write, draw diagrams, cross out irrelevant thoughts, and even make (admittedly poor) sketches as I go along. Were I to try the same on a computer, I would have to click at least three times to insert even a simple arrow – and that interrupts my thought processes significantly.  Likewise, when I read a scientific paper, I want to be able to underline and circle important points, and comment on points of contention, without have to click or drag or swipe or flag.

I wonder if, following the abolition of cursive writing, any schools in the US are seriously considering abolishing the teaching of handwriting altogether.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Is it even necessary to  know how to jot down a note these days, when even six-year-olds have smartphones in their pockets?  I think so.  I think that learning how to write by hand is an invaluable aid in developing reading and fine motor skills. 

I know it’s important to learn computer skills.  I know you need to learn how to type and, increasingly, how to program.  But I’m sorry: computers are not the future; children are.  So maybe we should invest some time and effort in teaching children how to hold a pen, so they can express their thoughts in ink, in their own style, in their own way.  Times New Roman looks the same for every user, but handwriting is as much an expression of one’s persona as clothing, and learning to develop it is invaluable: neurally, cognitively, and motorically.


Posted by Roger on December 1, 2016 at 21:35

I don’t want to seem like I’m taking pot shots at a particular nation, but here in the Netherlands the general standard of handwriting has been terrible for many years; it’s not just children.
It’s as if almost everyone writes in separate printed letters and with a strange mixture of lower and upper case letters (capital R being very noticeable in the middle of words).

I’m quite certain that more and more people, especially young people, write separated letters to resemble what is seen on screens.

As you mention at the end of the article there is an issue of motor skills to consider. Handwriting might be one of the last widespread, prominent examples of such a skill. The signature is also becoming meaningless. You could write ‘Mickey Mouse’ on an important form and no-one would notice. It correlates with the fact everyone’s public and, increasingly, private identities are defined by binary code rather than writing.

Posted by Gustavo on April 26, 2016 at 02:45

That paper you cited has a lot of very cool mathematics in it. I’m sure to read it later.

Jeff Racey
Posted by Jeff Racey on April 25, 2016 at 23:50

This is why I home schooled all my children. I help in homeschooling my grandaughter who just turned seven. She has been writing cursive for about four months now. She only uses fountain pens. I am now starting to teach her Spencerian writing.

Greg Moore
Posted by Greg Moore on January 16, 2016 at 05:36

Very Interesting Doctor Brown. Thank you.

Deborah Mohn
Posted by Deborah Mohn on January 8, 2016 at 15:29

I am a clinicalpsychologist in the United States.  I routinely evaluate children who are havingacademic and behavioral problems in school. l personally have problems with the idea that learning to print is a substitute for cursive handwriting.  The fine motor skills gained while learning cursive transfer across multiple domains.  Practicality speaking, printing legibly is much slower than writing cursive and when taking notes, time does count.  Here in the USA, essays are still an integral part of the university application process, and reviewers are not impressed with an essay that looks like it was printed by a third grader, regardless of the content.  I admit I prefer a fountain pen and am still striving to perfect a fine Spencerian hand.  That’s my vanity, but no one has ever called me childish, ignorant, or lazy because I write in cursive.  I have heard those terms applied to individuals who only print.  When I visit a museum, I can read most of the historical documents and can truly appreciate the calligraphy in ways someone who cannot write similarly.

Marlies van der Meer
Posted by Marlies van der Meer on January 8, 2016 at 12:12

Intriguing subject!

Personally, I feel the advantages of handwriting are still relatively undisputed. Although we read a lot about ‘iPad schools’ in the media, I think these institutions are a minority, not likely to gain much ground in the near future. Media exposure causes us to believe this is the new standard, and while I don’t know the exact figures, my confidence in educators is large enough to trust them with our children’s best interests.

But the main point I wish to make:  there is more to writing than the cursive alphabet.

A number of schools in the Netherlands have decided to take cursive writing off the menu. However, this does not mean they disregard the benefits of handwriting at all! The primary school my children attend chooses to teach them to write in separated ‘print letters’ instead of using the cursive alphabet. Teachers still take writing education very seriously and do not allow the children to use a pen (instead of a pencil) until they’ve mastered these handwriting skills, this process usually takes up to ‘groep 5’ (third grade). (This turned out to be quite an incentive to my youngest, btw. He was very proud when he was finally allowed to use a pen.)

The main reason cursive writing is ‘no longer part of the curriculum’ in these schools, is because the two totally different alphabets (used in reading versus writing education) were confusing Kindergarteners and first graders on a large scale. The cursive letters they were supposed to write looked totally different from the printed letters in their first reading exercises. This difference disappears when writing in ‘print’.

Maybe clarifying this difference will help the debate along… 

Chris Warren
Posted by Chris Warren on January 8, 2016 at 11:51

Great post Stephen!

I have terrible handwriting, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I am also an idiot smile

I dress like a slob too…

Jos Brosschot
Posted by Jos Brosschot on December 9, 2015 at 09:44

I have the habit of jotting down notes in the middle of the night, in the dark, not disturb my wife… Sometimes even schemes, with arrows and boxes… Afterward I immediately fall asleep again. These notes are always surprisingly readable the next morning, albeit that they do not always make sense…
Typing these notes on a screen would certainly wake me up completely, and prevent falling aslpee again, because of the light, the slowness of the proces, the typing errors, the frustration of not being able to express emphasis en connections etc, as Stephen explains. Some of my best ideas come from these nocturnal notes, and as a matter of fact my sleep after them is deeper, having ‘removed’ the attention-drawing ideas ‘out of my brain’ ... Days after I take pictures of them and soon after, but sometimes weeks or even years, I transfer them in digital notes, to be further processed in texts. After all, we live in a digital time…

John Dunn
Posted by John Dunn on October 24, 2015 at 21:07

Dr. Brown, I couldn’t agree more. I’m an American and I have a teenage niece who was the first to tell me that cursive handwriting isn’t taught in her school anymore because it’s “old fashioned”. Who needs it? She says…she was issued a laptop computer instead. Half-way through her high-school years she was forced to attend a different local school district made for kids who have been deemed to have “executive learning disorder” and such, due to poor grades. Perhaps my old-fashioned nature leaves me somewhat opinionated but I found this decision to eliminate handwriting skills from her schools appalling. Thank you for putting a scientific perspective on why this is likely going to be a huge mistake for our future.

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