Handwriting lessons in which children were taught how to hold a pencil and how to form the letters of the alphabet used to be an integral part of the school day. Now, for many children, their first exposure to writing is to copy letters as best they can and they are often not taught the standard formation of the letter (starting position, direction of movement and size) until a later time. Increasingly, students are also no longer being taught cursive writing. Does this matter?
Opponents of formal handwriting lessons argue that this skill is no longer relevant and teaching time is better devoted to other subjects, in particular proficient use of digital technology. However, the research does not support this view. Rather, a growing number of studies indicate that developing a competent and legible writing style is beneficial.
In Berninger et al.’s (2006) study, they found that teaching handwriting was highly correlated with improved outcomes in reading and writing activities. Children who were taught to write letters by hand first learned to read faster and were better at generating ideas and retaining information than children who used keyboards and did not practise handwriting. These researchers concluded that writing by hand and typing on a keyboard were associated with different brain patterns leading to different results.
Similarly, in Muller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) study, they found that university students who took notes on their laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who wrote their notes by hand. They believe that this occurred because recording notes on a laptop results in shallower processing. Laptop note-takers tended to transcribe the lectures verbatim whereas those students writing the notes were more likely to condense the information, reframing it in their own words, and this required them to first process the information.
So, the message appears to be that we should be systematically and explicitly teaching children how to, firstly, print the letters correctly, then teaching them cursive writing and, lastly, teaching them how to write effective notes.
Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Jones, J., Wolf, B.J., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., & Apel, K. (2006). Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), 61-92.
Muller, P., & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, Psychological Science, 25 (56), 1159-1168