Writing Wednesdays: Handwriting and cognition

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From the New York Times comes an interesting article on handwriting — in particular, the cognitive benefits of continuing to teach it in the keyboard era.

It’s a subject that they (and we) have tackled before, but what’s interesting about this piece is the research it reviews.

Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.

The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.

In many ways, this finding doesn’t surprise me; instead, it sounds like a variation on the theme that the best way to learn is by doing (through balance bikes rather than training wheels, say, or conducting your own experiment rather than reading about existing ones).

But older students also learn better when taking notes by hand, not on the computer, and there are apparently even special cognitive benefits to learning cursive. “Dr. Berninger goes so far as to suggest that cursive writing may train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not, and some researchers argue that it may even be a path to treating dyslexia.”

I may have to revise my opinion on cursive.

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