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.