Handwriting’s relevance in a digital world

What’s lost if we lose our handwriting skills? Flick/PhotoSteve101, CC BY-SA

The making of graphic marks in the form of letters was one of the first activities of early humans. Written words are the visual representation of our spoken language, and handwriting is a personal representation of the diversity of language.

Handwriting or “penmanship” has played an integral role in the education of many generations of schoolchildren and is the second of the educational triumvirate of reading, writing and arithmetic. But how relevant is handwriting in an age of mobile and wearable digital communication devices?

The benefits of handwriting

Contemporary education and psychology research suggests handwriting skills help children to read by “writing down” what they are learning in terms of spelling and sentence construction, similar to note-taking in other subject areas. It is “learning by doing” to an extent not possible with phones and tablets that auto-complete and auto-correct on behalf of the user. From a typographic perspective, handwriting provides us with the ability to see letters as shapes with form, weight, texture and space and this facilitates ease of reading by being able to form and identify letters that are clearly distinguishable from each other.

Writing in The New Yorker online, Maria Konnikova describes recent research in France and the USA that shows handwriting not only assists children to read more effectively but also helps them to create, imagine and recall information. Psychologists, such as Stanislas Dehaene at the Collège de France in Paris suggest that this is due to the activation of a unique neural circuit that facilitates learning by linking the gesture of handwriting with the child’s recognition of letterforms.

Writing by hand helps children read more effectively. Shuttestock

Konnikova notes that this view is supported by the research of US psychologist Karin James at Indiana University whose 2012 study found that the “doing” part of drawing letters by hand increases activity in three areas of a child’s brain that adults use when they read and write. Research at the University of Washington by US psychologist Virginia Berninger has shown that handwriting and typing on a computer keyboard generate different and distinctive brain patterns in children and that handwriting enables children to generate more words and more ideas.

Contrary to this research, some parents are questioning why schools would waste valuable class time on “outdated” skills like handwriting. This question has merit as many education jurisdictions plan their curriculum around the public testing of students and handwriting is not explicitly tested. There is, however, an irony in suggesting that handwriting be deleted from the curriculum because most students still need to complete their public exams and communicate their knowledge effectively to examiners through handwriting.

Integrating past and present

Rapid technological acceleration from desktop computers of the 1980s to mobile communication devices of this century has caused people to question the relevance of handwriting. It is important to remember, however, that the “global digital divide” means that only 40% of the world’s population has access to digital technology, making it premature to suggest an “either or” solution in which handwriting is totally endorsed or discarded.

Biometric authentication and digital signatures may replace handwritten autographs to verify documents and further technological developments may alter and improve the methods by which language is represented in visual form, but human judgement, subtlety and nuance are still vital necessities. Rather than seeing the relevance of handwriting as a “hand versus digital” dichotomy, an integration of the past and present is necessary to facilitate the integration of handwriting and technology in the future.

Four thousand years of writing and lettering history have brought the display of words to a point in the twenty-first century of incredible opportunity and possibility. Disparate and discriminatory digital access means the world is not in a position to completely jettison handwriting and there are still compelling educational and communication reasons to retain it. While typing on a digital device might be efficient, timely and convenient, even adults acknowledge that we learn and recall better what we write down on paper by hand. Until there is more definitive research to suggest otherwise, it seems on balance worthwhile maintaining for a while longer the role of handwriting in the critical early years of children’s education.