What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades

Photo credit:New York Times

Teaching children handwriting has been an accepted and integral part of early childhood education. But the Common Core Standards that many schools have now adopted no longer require that cursive handwriting be taught past kindergarten and first grade. Is that a good idea? Do we take a practice that has proved tried and true for many generations of students and dismiss it for 2nd graders? Would children benefit more in the long run by continuing to learn cursive handwriting as they’re being introduced to typing at a keyboard?

Maria Konnikova raises these questions in a Science Times article in The New York Times. She cites the concerns of neuroscientists and psychologists that these changes in curriculum are discounting the many benefits of handwriting including enhancing a child’s ability to read sooner and retain that information.

As Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, points out: “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”

So how exactly does handwriting make learning easier? A 2012 study by Indiana University psychologist Karin James found that when kids drew letters by hand, rather than tracing them, they had more activity in the areas of the brain associated with reading and writing. Dr. James explains, “When a kid produces a messy letter, that might help him learn it.”

Further studies seem to support that handwriting is as beneficial as ever. Research from the University of Washington also found that different areas of the brain are activated when a child is writing by hand versus typing on a keyboard. Kids practicing handwriting were able to write more words at a quicker pace, and also tended to come up with more of their own ideas.

And the benefits of handwriting can last into adulthood. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, say that students who write out their class notes tend to learn better and remember more than those who type them.

Even Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who has not in the past been convinced of the long term benefit of handwriting, concedes this point after reviewing the latest research: “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important. Maybe it helps you think better.”

The New York Times, 6/2/14

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