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I remember a time where it was thought that computers would replace handwriting. Thankfully that has not occurred at good schools such as The Knox School.

Like me, I am sure some of you have been castigated for poor handwriting. For me, this advice came initially from my primary school and lower secondary school teachers as they endeavoured to have me slow down my handwriting and concentrate on forming my letters more carefully.

As an adult, anyone who has had to try and read my handwriting has had some cause for concern as I try to have my handwriting keep up with my thinking. I try to slow down and, when I do, the quality of my hand writing improves. But that placed me in a dilemma in that the writing looks neater but it could never keep up with my thinking. As I focussed on the form and style of my handwriting, the ideas that I wished to convey came but unfortunately some also left!

Access to a personal computer allowed me to use a keyboard and while my touch typing never became fully formed, I can type at a reasonable speed. Yet, while I could now keep better pace with my thoughts whilst typing, I noticed that the quality of my thinking, especially if dealing with a complex or nuanced topic, was never as good as when writing by hand. Eventually I learned to use handwriting for recording more subtle and complex thinking and would use a computer keyboard to gain immediacy and speed when writing simple reports and tasks requiring more procedural or more straight-forward thinking.

Recently I have found that my mostly intuitive and practical separation of typing and handwriting may have some basis to it. Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) have found in three studies that laptops, when used for taking notes by US college students, lead to shallower mental processing than with notes taken in handwriting, and performance on conceptual questions was also lower than for students who took handwritten notes. Their research showed that taking more notes can be beneficial but using a keyboard led to a tendency to transcribe the lecturer’s words verbatim rather than undertaking the processing and reframing of the words in the student’s own writing that the relative slow speed of handwriting notes requires.

Virginia Berninger (2006) conducted a study that followed children in grades two through five. She demonstrated that printing and handwriting are associated with separate brain patterns and produce different results to those gained by typing. Text written by hand was consistently longer in length (more words) than that produced on a keyboard. In these longer texts, more ideas were expressed. Brain scans of the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation was even more complex. When asked to come up with ideas for a composition, those with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas of the brain associated with working memory and also showed higher levels of brain activation in areas associated with reading and writing.
Feder and Majnemer (2007) comment that children spend a significant portion of their school day performing handwriting and other fine motor tasks and difficulty in this area can interfere with academic achievement. They provide evidence that demonstrates that handwriting is important for letter processing in brain regions known to underlie successful reading. Handwriting therefore may facilitate reading acquisition in young children.

Saperstein Associates (2012) support this finding. They suggest that handwriting is a foundational skill that can deeply influence a student’s reading, writing, language use and critical thinking.

Finally, James and Engelhardt (2012) remind us that the acquisition of handwriting is a very complex task, requiring high quality explicit teaching as it has a significant array of component skills. They maintain that legible handwriting remains an important life-skill, no matter the ease of access or usefulness of computers.

Computers and handwriting are both important tools for our young people, whether they be in our Junior School or Year 12 and about to enter tertiary learning. Both have a role to play and the balance in their use will change over time.

Mueller, Pam A. & Oppenheimer, Daniel, M.: 2014. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science. Accessed July 24, 2014
James, Karin H. & Engelhardt, L.: 2012. The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Vol. 1, No. 1, December, Pages 32–42 Accessed July 24, 2014.

Berninger, Virginia W., et al.: 2006. Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening and speaking connections; three letter writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology. Vol. 29 No.1. Pages 61-92. Accessed July 24 2014.

Feder, Katya P. & Majnemer, Annette: 2007. Handwriting development, competency and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology. Vol. 49, No. 4. Pages 312–317. Accessed July 25, 2014.

Saperstein Associates 2012. Handwriting in the 21st Century? Research Shows Why Handwriting Belongs in Today’s Classroom: A Summary of Research Presented at
Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit. White Paper. Accessed July 24, 2014.

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