• Julianne Noel

Handwriting + The Brain


Science continues to prove that handwriting remains relevant despite our digital age through recent neurological studies that strongly link the act of writing during letter learning to a higher level of literacy development.

A series of state-of-the-art neuroimaging methods were used to observe brain changes in children ages 4-5 as they learned letters and words, by researchers in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University (James, 2017).

The findings where undeniable.

Children learn symbols better if they write them by hand than through any other form of practice including seeing, tracing, listening, and yes even typing! (James & Atwood, 2009; Longcamp et al., 2008, Li & James, 2016; Zerbato-Poudou, & Velay, 2005) ).

This is highly attributed to the fact that the action of handwriting joins visual processing with a motor experience creating neurological pathways that have significant effects on ones ability to retain information. It becomes more than just a lesson but also an experience.

Creating a letter form through a self-generated action capitalizes on the brains natural ability to learn through functional magnetic resonance imaging methods (fMRI) and raises blood-oxygen-level-development (BOLD). These signals are scientifically seen as a direct reflection of brain activity and learning. Please see figure 3 to compare BOLD activation difference between letter perception when learning through writing vs. through typing. Letter perception is a foundational precursor to many aspects of literacy including reading, spelling, and writing.

Furthermore, it proven that as humans we learn things better if we see lots of different examples than if we see a single example repeated ( Gibson & Gibson, 1955). This variation during learning letters can not be obtained through any other method than the written practice. For example if you are typing the letter a repeatedly you will be encountering the same exact letter form visually 100% of the time " a - a - a -a". However see row 2 in the example below and take note of the way the child experiences variation in writing the same letter three times. This self produced variation works in tandem with the brains natural ability to develop and facilitates the learners ability to retain information.

It is evident that learning letters should not only be an activity of seeing them and hearing them, but solidified by creating them through experience.

It's important to keep the discussion of handwriting alive at the forefront of our public school standards. You can join the discussion by writing to your local commissioner and school board and show your support of handwriting to ensure it is taught in our public schools through the years to come.

References and Further Reading Suggestions:

Gibson, J. J., & Gibson, R. J. (1955). Perceptual learning: Differentiation or enrichment? Psychological Review, 62(1), 32–41.

James, K. H. (2017). The Importance of Handwriting Experience on the Development of the Literate Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 502-508. doi:10.1177/0963721417709821

James, K. H. & Atwood, T. (2009). Active motor experience changes neural activation patterns to letter-like symbols.Cognitive Neuropsychology, 26, 91–110.

Li, J. X., & James, K. H. (2016). Handwriting generates vari- able visual output to facilitate symbol learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 298–313.

Longcamp, M., Boucard, C., Gilhodes, J.- C., Anton, J.- L., Roth, M., Nazarian, B., & Velay, J.- L. (2008). Learning through hand- or typewriting influences visual recogni- tion of new graphic shapes: Behavioral and functional imaging evidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 802–815. doi:10.1162/jocn.2008.20504

Longcamp, M., Zerbato-Poudou, M.- T., & Velay, J.- L. (2005). The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Acta Psychologia, 119, 67–79.

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