• Dr. Timothy Smith

Handwriting Drives Literacy

Girl Writing

Photo Source: PxHere

Today with the proliferation of computers, smartphones, and tablets, people use hand writing less than in years past. Handwriting instruction also shows signs of decline. According to a study conducted in 2010, the Miami-Dade school system found cursive instruction down in schools across the country, and a survey sponsored by the school supply company, Really Good Stuff, found that 65 and 79 percent of second and third grade teachers respectively included cursive writing in their curriculum. The emphasis on digital classrooms, declining cursive instruction, and the proliferation of computers in the home, classroom, and workplace poses the question whether we should still emphasize writing and how writing affects us. Two researchers, Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay, wrote a chapter in a book titled Advances in Haptics that looked at the relationship between literacy and handwriting. The chapter titled, “Digitizing literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing,” published by InTech in 2010 surveys research in different disciplines from neuroscience, psychology, and phenomenology to connect the act of writing with a pen or pencil to the process of learning. The term haptic in the title comes from the Greek word haptikos, which means to be able to touch or grasp. The authors reference to research that demonstrates an active relationship between the process of writing in contrast to typing. Writing involves the skill of forming letters on a piece of paper. To write the word two, the hand must hold a pen form the letters, which requires a complex interplay between the hand, the paper, and the eye that helps guide the hand and sees that the letters look correct. Typing, in contrast, involves finger tips striking a key that produces a character on a screen, which requires much less fine motor skills than writing. Unlike the old-fashioned notion of Cartesian dualism, named for the French philosopher Renee Descartes who thought that the mind existed separately from the body, recent research demonstrates an indistinguishable connection between the mind and the body often referred to as embodied cognition. Embodied cognition implies that body motions and perceptions intimately relate to our perception and learning. In other words, the process of writing a letter with a pen or pencil forms a part of how our brain understands the letter. The chapter cites a study with children that showed kids would remember a symbol better if they trace the symbol with their finger than if they only look at it. Such a finding implies that handwriting forms an intimate connection to reading and is essential for overall literacy.

The notion that writing by hand produces different results than typing emerged before the computer with the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s. Mark Twain became an early adopter of the typewriter after witnessing the demonstration of a typist tapping out 57 words a minute on a Remington typewriter in Boston. He recognized that the typist could write twice as fast as a person with pen and paper, but he found that the machine in his hands did not work nearly as well. As typewriter technology advanced, more businesses and government agencies adopted typewriters to achieve more efficiency and more precise record keeping, but the original target audience for the typewriter, the writer, essayist, or clergyman, did not embrace the typewriter. In his book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, Dennis Baron notes that “Complaints that writing machines bring impersonality, killing off handwriting and the soul.” Others saw great promise in the typewriter, the Columbia University professor Ben Wood and Frank Freeman undertook studies to demonstrate that\ typing improved education in children. Their premise followed a more Cartesian line of thinking that typing produced a more direct route from mind to page.

Many writers wrote by hand or used a typewriter before the availability of the computer to write all manners of work. Research in the relationship between the mind and body in learning and understanding the world forced the abandonment of Cartesian dualism or a distinct difference between the mind and the body. New research shows that we learn through touching and making things with our hands and that literacy requires the physical action of writing letters. As we look at schools dropping cursive writing from the curriculum, we should pause, not be so rash to assume that because of computers kids when they grow up will not need to know cursive, because we may be impairing their ability to be fully literate.

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Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon here. (Digital format coming soon)