Here’s an interesting thought from Doug Dickinson

Why is it given such an important place? Is it an essential learning skill? If it is – to what level does it need to be developed in a world where most communications are now made electronically and writing on paper with a device is usually for person notes etc? And what has it got to do with literacy?

All primary schools still include conventional handwriting teaching and I’m not sure how many routinely teach keyboard skills. The debate is challenging: it is imperative that we equip our children for the 21st century; but nevertheless we cannot pretend that every child has access to a computer whenever they need to write while in – or out – of school.

There is an important conversation to be had about the methods we use when teaching writing although ultimately of course, it is the content that matters. Certainly for learners with dyslexia, I have no doubt that word processing is infinitely superior to handwriting because of the obvious advantages of legible, relatively error-free presentation.

There is some research that claims that ‘writing by hand engages the brain in learning’.

During one study at IndianaUniversity published this year, researchers used an MRI machine to spot neural activity in the brain. Children were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and “adult-like” than in those who had simply looked at letters.

Recent research illustrates how “It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time,” says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience atIndianaUniversitywho led the study.

This study did not appear to contrast writing with typing however. Another study, though, indicates improved cognitive activity and engagement when writing by hand.

In a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters’ proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says

pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory – the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

This makes sense. Nevertheless, for children who struggle to recall letter shapes and patterns, whose motor skills are undeveloped, whose poor spelling inhibits creativity, I would suspect there is no contest: ICT will always be preferred. That’s if they have the skills in the first place.

Perhaps the combination of technology and handwriting is one way forward: an iPhone app can encourage little ones to draw letters with their fingers or a stylus: correct movements earn cheering pencils.

I am indebted to Gwendolyn Bounds for drawing my attention to this interesting research.