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To hand write or to type?

To hand write or to type?

How can schools balance the rise of digital technology with evidence that handwriting could be better for learning?
Handwriting is in decline. Many of us will have written a shopping list or a note on a post-it in the past few days but few of us will have drafted a long text—a ‘proper’ letter, for example—using a pen. It is not, of course, true that everybody has the same access to alternatives such as email—even though the number of users had increased tenfold from 1999 to 2013, nearly 75% of all internet users in the world live in just 20 countries. The remaining 25% are distributed among the other 178 countries, each representing less than 1% of total (1). That said, a survey in the UK of 2,000 people in 2015 reported that one in three respondents had not written anything by hand in the previous six months. On average they had not put pen to paper in the previous 41 days (2).
But if handwritten copy is fast disappearing in the workplace and at home, what effect does this have—should this have—in schools? In the United States ‘cursive’ writing (in which the pen is not raised between each letter) has been dropped from the Common Core Curriculum Standards. Forty three states no longer require the teaching of cursive handwriting in public schools. Finland, a country whose education system rocketed to prominence by occupying the top spot when PISA tests were first introduced, has also announced that from 2016 students will be taught only print handwriting and will spend more time learning keyboard skills.
However, there is concern in some quarters that giving up handwriting may affect how future generations learn to read or, indeed, might hinder their overall learning. Marieke Longchamp and Jean-Luc Velay, two researchers at the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Aix-Marseille University, have studied children learning to write. They found that children who learned to write letters by hand were better at recognising them than those that learned to type them on a computer (3). The evidence suggests that handwriting provides on-line signals from a variety of sources including vision, motor commands and kinaesthetic feedback. In contrast, typing predominantly requires only visual discrimination. Though there is less robust research in this area, there is also evidence that writing in cursive seems to have some benefits as the brain has to visually track rapidly changing positions of the pencil and control hand and finger movements. To learn such skills, the brain must improve its control over eye-movement saccades and the processing of visual feedback to provide corrective feedback. According to William Klemm, “Both tracking and movement control require much more engagement of neural resources in producing cursive or related handwriting methods.(4)”
Daniel Oppenheimer and Pam Mueller’s research indicates that older students who took handwritten notes retained the information learned for a longer duration of time. After a week, those who took longhand notes performed better than the laptop users on both factual and conceptual questions. For Mueller and Oppenheimer, the reason is clear: because working on paper by hand was a more laborious process, people tended to paraphrase information. This required them to carry out a preliminary mental process of summarising and comprehension. By contrast those working on a keyboard tended to take verbatim notes. Transcription, it seems, requires little mental engagement. In a recent interview, Mueller explained: “There is such thing as a desirable difficulty, having a little bit of difficulty when you’re trying to learn something is actually beneficial and longhand note-taking might be just that for us.” Maria Alonso reached a similar conclusion: “Since handwriting is slower, the pace of the inner voice allows more time for rehearsal and facilitates in a greater scale the retention.(5)”
All that said there are, of course, a host of advantages to typing rather than handwriting in many circumstances. There is clearly the question of speed: an average person hand writes at 31 words per minute for memorised text and 22 words per minute while copying whereas an average professional typist types usually in speeds of 50 to 80 words per minute. More than this, though, online tools also allow one to read, review, and edit text almost anywhere; there is access to proofreading tools such as a thesaurus and a dictionary; one can cut, copy, paste, drag and drop, undo, redo, format, develop and edit without starting again; students can use text to speech features to hear how their writing sounds, or to motivate reluctant readers, who may well be more inclined to listen than decode; one can collaborate online with peers who can respond. Indeed, according to Ito et al, this ‘peer-based learning’ is characterised by ‘a context of reciprocity,’ where participants don’t just contribute, but also comment on, and contribute to the content of others (6).
When students come to examination time there are also some benefits to using digital technologies. A number of studies have suggested that teachers and professors grade students less positively if they have poor handwriting, even if the content is identical to someone with good handwriting. Clearly this is an effect that is reduced with word processing. Interestingly, Nora Mogey and James Hartley report that in the end there is little difference stylistically between examination essays written by hand and those that are type written (7). They then go on to suggest that the disappearance of handwritten essays in examinations is ‘inevitable.’
It is easy to see how this issue could be a polarising one; however, a way forward rests on a simple question: How can we best support students to be successful learners? When looking to develop a strategy, it might be useful to keep in mind four guidelines:
  • We need not create a false dilemma between handwriting and typing as it is not an either-or situation. Schools should try to support children to develop the necessary skills for proficiency in both techniques without forcing them to prioritise one of the two methods (8).
  • In early childhood (and beyond) we most effectively learn to recognise and form letters through handwriting. The additional context provided by the complex task of writing results in better memory.
  • Students who have taken notes on a laptop often perform worse on tests of both factual and conceptual understanding than students who have taken notes longhand. Assimilating new information through good note taking is not a question of transcription but of active processing. This requires note takers to have the skill and motivation to summarise and recast information regardless of whether they are using a pen or a keyboard.
  • Typing can make accessible a host of advantages, not least of which is that it can be faster and more efficient than writing by hand and will be used for assessment purposes in essay examinations.
If we look at the history of writing and we look at the history of technology, there is both loss and positive change. Socrates famously worried about what writing would do to civilisation. With writing there was a loss of the required vast memory that those in an oral culture hold. However, we gained all of the benefits of living in a literate culture. On the horizon, we can foresee the loss and positive change that will someday occur when speech recognition and dictation tools are likely to supplant both handwriting and the keyboard. But for now, as a society, we are navigating the loss of writing by hand as the primary tool to record information and thoughts. We can see the positive changes and it is our collective job to mediate the perceived loss. For the foreseeable future, therefore, schools will need to actively manage the tension between the use of a pen and a keyboard.
5 Alonso, M., A., P. Metacognition and sensorimotor components underlying the process of handwriting and keyboarding and their impact on Learning. An analysis from the perspective of embodied psychology, p.266. 2015.
7 Mogey, N & Hartley, J. “To Write or to Type? The Effects of Handwriting and Word-Processing on the written Style of Examination Essays.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, v50 n1, pp.85-93. 2013.


16 Mar 2016
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