Handwriting in the digital age

Writing by hand, especially in childhood, confers many cognitive advantages in the realm of literacy
Last Updated 20 December 2022, 08:24 IST

That students are reluctant to write lengthy answers is a common lament among educators. Additionally, fewer children exhibit eye-catching penmanship with a subset of writing illegibly. Given that handwriting is becoming redundant in the workplace, should schools shift to using laptops in classrooms? Should schools prioritise keyboarding over handwriting? Absolutely not, say three impassioned educators.

Children don’t see adults writing anymore, bemoans Madhura Visweswaran, co-founder and director of Redwood Montessori, a school based in Chennai. Handwriting, including signatures, is almost absent in adult lives. Parents use phones and tablets instead of a notebook (the traditional kind) for making lists and jotting down reminders. Children don’t encounter handwriting in their natural environments.

Schools are the only exception. Writing notes and exams by hand is still the dominant mode though some schools allow devices. The pandemic clearly drove home the point that in-person learning cannot be replaced by remote instruction. According to Visweswaran, children, especially in the early grades, need multisensorial experiences to learn most effectively. The kinesthetic feedback that children receive from writing letters with a pencil boosts their reading abilities.

Writing by hand, especially in childhood, confers many cognitive advantages in the realm of literacy, emphasises Sandhya Thomas, a psychology teacher at Sishya, a school based in Chennai. An experienced special educator, Sima Bhushan, Head of Learning Arc, a centre for remedial education in Bengaluru, concurs that young children need to engage their five senses for optimal learning.

Writing and learning

In an article in The Guardian, writer Anne Chemin cites a research study conducted at Aix-Marseille University where 76 children aged three to five either learnt to print letters by hand or type them on a computer. The handwriting group outperformed the typing one on a subsequent letter recognition test. Interestingly, this experiment was conducted again with adults, who were taught either Tamil or Bengali characters. The results mirrored the findings of the children’s study.

Another study, cited in an article by Cindi May in Scientific American, involved college students who were asked to take notes during class either using a laptop or longhand. On a later test that involved factual recall, conceptual understanding, and the “ability to synthesise and generalise the information,” the longhand group scored better than the typing group.

The speed allowed students who typed to copy what was being discussed verbatim. Meanwhile, students who handwrote their notes had to process the information more actively. Because they couldn’t write every word, they had to distil the “essence of the information” and summarise it, which resulted in more robust learning.

Bhushan says she started seeing an uptick in kids with handwriting issues around five years ago, which was exacerbated after the pandemic. While some children have discernible fine-motor coordination issues, others exhibit an aversion to writing, without an underlying physical problem. She observes that students from international schools, who rely heavily on devices, are more reluctant to write. In contrast, for children from government schools, who tend to do copious amounts of copying, handwriting is less of an issue.

When it comes to handwriting instruction, which method or style is better? Visweswaran, being a staunch Montessorian, strongly advocates for cursive writing. She emphasises the importance of giving children many sensorial activities, including manipulating small objects, tower building, glueing, painting and other activities before introducing formal writing.

Print or cursive?

Initially, children start writing on a blank sheet of paper and then move on to writing between a broad pair of lines that progressively gets narrower. Visweswaran feels that cursive style allows a child to write fluidly and faster. Thomas also endorses cursive.

Sishya says handwriting instruction in the primary grades is important. Bhushan, being a special educator, feels the child’s comfort level must determine whether to use print or cursive. She recalls working with a tenth-grader, whose illegible writing had to improve within six months for him to attempt the board exams.

In an article in The Atlantic, history professor Drew Gilpin Faust admits she was astounded when two-thirds of her undergraduate seminar students at Harvard University confessed that they couldn’t read, let alone write, cursive. Even as devices consume our lives, perhaps, we should handwrite our to-do lists and applaud schools that champion handwriting.

(The author is a psychologist and a counsellor)

(Published 19 December 2022, 14:01 IST)

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