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Write on! How Handwriting Impacts Literacy | NeuroConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our NeuroConnections blog series, where we explore the bridge between neuroscience and education.

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When I go back and look at handwritten notes that I’ve taken during a meeting, it's often like a game to decode what it says. I'm left-handed. That's my excuse. To my credit though, the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing computer game I played in the late 80’s was to me what The Legend of Zelda was to my three brothers; as a result I’ve been able to type in excess of 100 wpm with my eyes closed since age 10. And while that's a skill set I still proudly keep at the top of my resume, new research shows that I shouldn't discount my chicken scratch, nor should parents throw out their children’s #2 pencils just yet.

ExpandED Schools - handwriting

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, an ExpandED School, partners with & BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) to expand the school day.

In a study published in Trends in Neuroscience Education, researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt hypothesized that learning to write letters by hand (as opposed to tracing or typing them) would in fact lead to better reading ability. The researchers proposed that in learning to write letters, children are able to determine which elements of the letters are critical for processing/identifying the letters and which are just 'noise.’ (For example, despite my chicken scratch, others can see when I write the letter B, even if it looks markedly different from how their B would look.) Put more technically, they believed that the motor experience of handwriting would result in a change in the visual processing system during letter recognition later on.

To test this hypothesis, five-year-old children who did not already know how to read were placed in one of three conditions, each of which, the children were shown a letter on a card. In the first condition, children were then asked to write out the letters themselves free form. In the second condition, they traced the letter. In the third, they typed the letters on a computer. All three groups were then scanned in an fMRI while viewing these letters to see if brain activity differed among the groups. Indeed it was found that an area of the brain (the left fusiform gyrus) known to be related to reading and letter processing ('the reading circuit') was more active in the group that practiced writing out the letters free-form than those who were in the typing or tracing group (there was no different between these latter two groups). In other words, the area of the brain that is active in literate adults is activated in preliterate children after they practice writing letters free-form, but not after tracing or typing them.

So as technology continues to permeate our homes and classrooms, and while typing confers a great number of positive benefits to students in many situations, we should not discount the value that handwriting, no matter how messy, has on the long-term success of our children.



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