Tablet vs. Tablet: The Trend Away From Writing by Hand and What it Means for Child Development

Digital devices exceed handwriting in speed, agility, and sharing, but what is the trade-off?

Think back to the immense effort it took to write your first complete sentence: the backwards letters, the confusion of capitalization, and where do the commas go again? This struggle is part of literacy, and without that struggle, certain connections simply don’t happen. The herculean process of devising associations between different parts of the brain relies, in part, on the friction of physical challenge.

We naturally assume in this information age that efficiency equals fluency, but we can look around at many aspects of our society and see where faster doesn’t make better. Educators and psychologists would certainly agree when it comes to written language.

Some tasks like thinking require slowing down, the research on writing by hand indicates. Consider the quickly diminishing art of cursive. Nationally, most states have dropped cursive from Common Core curricula, a move initially hailed as progress by one writer for The Los Angeles Times, but neurologists are calling foul1. Cursive, unlike printing, demands connective points between letters, giving it a flowing action. In comparing brain scans with printing and handwriting, different parts of the brain are active with cursive. It allows us to tease out extended thoughts and ideas, even more than printing2.

And when it comes to comparing writing by hand with typing, the two achieve very distinct results. Three experiments conducted by Dr. Pam Mueller and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer spilt a lecture hall down the center and had half the students on laptops and the other half taking notes by hand. They then tested the students’ performance and found the group that took notes by hand excelled in terms of concept integration and memory. Each group noted that they were able to get more information down with the laptop, but when it came to reviewing their notes, they had no idea what to prioritize. The very process of writing forces the note taker to make choices about what to note; in short, writing by hand and critical listening go together3.

Think for a moment about all that is happening when a child takes up a pen and writes a word on paper: the hand on the writing implement, the eye on the paper, and the abstracting brain that attaches meaning to symbol. All these elements fuse in the act, creating a distinct neurological pathway2. The left-brain is busy defining, organizing, and computing. The right-brain is wordless, and primarily concerned with space, and interpreting facial expressions, emotions, and music. Both hemispheres conduct an elaborate dance, a dance that is literally brain building. To extend the allegory, the music isn’t playing when we write on a keyboard.

To provide some other anecdotal examples of the value of writing things down, one special education teacher who worked with severe behavioral students found that beginning class with 10 minutes of cursive practice calmed his students down and increased attention levels. The University of Chicago found it could decrease test anxiety among students if they had a chance to write about the feeling before they took the test4.

We wouldn’t deprive our children of art or science, but we fail to recognize the fallout from not continuing to teach this crucial, communicative tool that has shaped our destiny on the planet for the last 4000 years. Of course our kids should learn to type ­­–but in addition to and not in place of – writing by hand. We want our children to enjoy increased ability and engagement and so in order to achieve that optimal level of thought, we cannot afford to shelve one technique for the other.






About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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