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Hand or keyboard?

Educators and parents often think that writing classes end once a child learns to write out the letters of the alphabet. But there seems to be a trend, or rather a revival, of penmanship classes beyond preschool and early elementary grades.

The reason usually given is that the penmanship classes offer good discipline for the children. Others look at good penmanship as an asset, a sign of good breeding. Still others, like De La Salle and Assumption, see penmanship as a marker of their educational system, with their graduates picking up a particular form of penmanship that tells you right away that the writer is from their schools.

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Now there’s fancy research involving fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), or looking into the brains of children as they write, and the findings are extraordinary: Handwriting has many more important functions.

I was alerted to these studies by an article in the New York Times (Maria Konnikova, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades”), and as I looked up the journal articles I realized there was so much research going on, even a “Handwriting in the 21st Century Summit” convened in 2012 to convince educators and parents of the benefits of handwriting.

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Free-form writing

One study by Indiana University psychologist Karin Harmon James involved three groups of children who had not learned to read and write. The children were given a letter or a shape and one group was asked to trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, another group was asked to draw the image on a blank white sheet, and the third group was asked to type out the image on a computer.

The children who drew the letter or shape freehand had the most stimulation in parts of the brain which are also activated in adults when they read or write. The explanation for this difference is that in free-form handwriting, a person has to plan what to do.

You can see this in kids—intent, almost anxious, about writing out a letter, complete with the tongue sticking out for the task.  And I do agree there’s a greater sense of accomplishment when they free-form a letter, no matter how crude it may look. It helps, too, if you cheer them along as they write out the letter.

James says “messy” letters are good, helping with the learning because children see their own progress as they practice. I’ve seen this, too, in children, as they look back at their handwriting and go, “Oh, that was pangit  (ugly),” feeling pride now that they are able to write well.

Another psychologist, Virginia Beringer of the University of Washington, compared children from grades two to five with printed script (block letters), cursive writing and typing. Handwriting was again superior, with children producing more words, and expressing more ideas than those using a keyboard.

It seems that through handwriting, children become better at learning to recognize letters in the mind’s eye, and this improves reading and writing (e.g., essays and reports) that will be so important later in school, and at work.

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I began to learn to type at 12, when I was in the sixth grade.  My children are now being taught to “keyboard” (the new term, because typewriters have all but disappeared) as early as in the first grade. I agree that keyboarding is important, but the research suggests that because we learn to type so rapidly, there’s less time to process ideas, make connections.

I cannot imagine doing my columns by hand, but I find that when I’m doing the background research for an article, it’s better to take notes by hand, because of a kind of “imprinting” on the brain. What often happens is that even with handwritten notes, I can write up my column without referring back to those notes because much of the information has been stored in my brain. The times I do check the notes, it’s more for statistics, and the spelling of names.

As an administrator having to attend many meetings, I did explore using laptops and tablets for note-taking but returned to handwritten notes. The problem with typing is that you’re swept up with speed, wanting to record everything that’s said.  Handwriting puts you in a more discerning mode, picking and choosing what’s important and allowing you to build connections among topics, tasks, even people, as you write.

I did dabble with an app called Bamboo Paper, which allows you to write notes by hand on the iPad, but I’m not yet comfortable with the process especially because it’s difficult to navigate the pages.

I do transfer handwritten notes into the computer because it makes it easier to do a search when you need to look up particular information. For example, I can type in the name of a person I met with, and it will take me to the notes that I keyboarded in.

In the 21st century, it’s not really handwriting versus keyboarding. But even if the computer keyboard seems so vital, we shouldn’t forget training children, and adults, to keep on writing by hand. I worry at seeing students who just sit in class staring at the lecturer, and bringing out their phones from time to time to shoot a picture of what you’ve written on the whiteboard or blackboard, or slides in your PowerPoint presentation.

Calligraphy

Let me take a detour and look at how the case for handwriting is made even stronger in cultures that use idiographs or individual characters for each word, as in Chinese. The Japanese also use kanji or “Han characters” borrowed from Chinese, together with two syllabary systems called katakana and hiragana.

In these cultures, a student has to learn to write thousands of characters to be considered literate, and I can’t help but think that this is part of the secret of better academic performance from students who go through schools that teach Chinese. Writing out the characters over and over again to learn the proper sequence of strokes and the correct spacing between the strokes must really exercise the brain.

It’s significant that despite the tediousness of writing out the characters, Chinese and Japanese calligraphy are also promoted as a form of recreation similar to painting. It’s not surprising that Zen practitioners also sometimes take up calligraphy as part of their meditation practice. So handwriting functions both as discipline and as a way of taming the mind.

Calligraphy—the art of handwriting—developed, too, with alphabet-based cultures. I can imagine the early Christian monks finding peace when transcribing the Bible with elaborate calligraphy. Fine Arabic calligraphy is also very much appreciated, often used to write out just one or two words with profound meaning.

As a biological anthropologist, I’d even suggest that the ability to write by hand is probably a milestone in our evolution. When we evolved to become bipedal, standing on two feet rather than using four limbs, we freed our hands to make tools, to gesture (probably an early form of language) and, later, in many cultures, to write, a powerful way of passing on information from one generation to another.

Now the research tells us writing by hand probably also sharpens our thinking ability and skills, helping us to make sense of the world around us and to record, for our children and their children, the many marvels and miracles of the human condition.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades”, Bamboo Paper, Bible, calligraphy, Christian monks, education, educational system, Fine Arabic calligraphy, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, Good Breeding, Handwriting, Karin Harmon James, Maria Konnikova, meditation practice, Penmanship, taming the mind, University of Washington, Virginia Beringer, Zen practitioners
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