Does typing make learning harder?

Behind the Headlines

Friday January 21 2011

Writing by hand is thought to aid children's learning

“Children who write by hand ‘learn better than those who type’,” reported the Daily Mail.

The newspaper is referring to a scientific paper discussing the theory that the physical action of forming letters while writing by hand is important in helping the brain to remember the letters that are written. The authors highlight some experimental studies to support their theory, but mainly draw attention to the lack of evidence in this area and point out the need for further research.

Considering how common computers are in schools and homes now, this is an important topic for discussion. However, this review does not provide any evidence that children's learning suffers through using computers rather than writing by hand. Studies into the effect of computers in schools on children’s learning would shed more light on the matter. 

How is writing or typing supposed to affect learning?

The reviewers highlight several differences between handwriting and typing in how the brain creates, perceives and processes the letters that are produced. For example, handwriting involves the use of only one hand, whereas most people use two hands to type. Handwriting is also usually slower than typing and people focus on the tip of the pen. This is in contrast to typing where people switch from looking at the keys to the screen.

Handwriting also requires making shapes with the pen, while typing does not require this as the letters are “ready-made” – but the writer does have to locate where each letter is on the keyboard. These differences mean that different areas of the brain are active while we are typing or writing.

The researchers say that the use of our hands to manipulate tools has played a role in learning and cognitive development throughout evolution and may be a significant building block in language development. They add that brain imaging studies show that specific hand movements involved in handwriting support the visual recognition of letters. The researchers’ theory is that the body’s 'sensorimotor' – functioning in both sensory and motor (movement) aspects of bodily activity – “might be a defining feature of not only the skill of writing but may in fact be an intrinsic factor contributing to low-level reading skills (e.g. letter recognition)”.

The researchers support their theory with a quote from Frank Wilson, a neurologist and author:

“Any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historical origins of that or the impact of that history on the developmental dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile."

 

Is there scientific evidence that handwriting is better for learning than typing?

The researchers say that some evidence can be found from studies conducted in the 1970s that looked at how children memorised a series of abstract pictures, either by simply looking at the shapes or by looking at them and tracing the forms with their finger. The studies found the tracing movements improved the children’s ability to memorise the graphic items.

They also refer to two separate studies that found that letters or characters learned through typing were then recognised afterwards less accurately than letters or characters written by hand.

Meanwhile, brain imaging studies appear to have shown that handwriting causes greater activity in two brain areas, called the left “Broca’s area” and the “bilateral inferior parietal lobules” than typing. These areas are suggested as being involved in the “execution, imagery and observation of actions”.

Finally, another study demonstrated that children spell words more accurately if they have learnt them by writing them down rather than typing them, but this finding has not been confirmed in subsequent studies.

 

What are the authors’ conclusions?

The researchers say that during the act of writing, there is a strong relationship between how the brain processes the information and the sensory and positional feedback it gets from holding the device.

They feel that theories of writing and literacy currently dominant in the fields of writing research that may look at social and cultural effects or how symbols affect language understanding are incomplete because they do not acknowledge the crucial ways in which different technologies and material interfaces “shape” cognition. They say that the “hand is as much at the core of human life as the brain itself”and that it is “involved in human learning”. Finally they ask: “Could anything we have learnt about the hand be used to improve the teaching of children?”

Considering how common now computers are in schools and homes, this is an important topic for discussion. However, the authors do not suggest specific ways their theory could have implications for children’s education. This was a narrative review presenting a theory, and further research would need to take place to prove it.

Links to the headlines

Write it don't type it if you want knowledge to stick The Daily Telegraph, January 21 2011

Handwriting better for learning than typing Daily Mirror, January 21 2011

Why the pen is mightier than the keyboard: Children who write by hand 'learn better than those who type' Daily Mail, January 21 2011 

Links to the science

Mangen A and Velay J-L. Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing. Advances in Haptics 2011

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Edited by NHS Choices