Friday, 08 October 2010 09:45

The Three Rs Are Important After All

Written by  Kelly Holt

Write it, learn it. Recent studies suggest that — surprise! — handwriting is important. Beyond the obvious advantages (your pharmacist can read your doctor’s prescription, say), research has revealed that the art of writing is an important learning tool.

Gwendolyn Bounds notes in the October 5 Wall Street Journal that children benefit from handwriting, which engages their brains in learning. It improves their expression and idea composition, she says, and helps them develop fine motor skills and learn letters and shapes.

Dr. Virginia Berninger, University of Washington professor of educational psychology, observed in her study that when elementary-aged children wrote essays by hand, they expressed more ideas, wrote more words, and wrote them more quickly. Brain scans have shown that the region of the brain responsible for information storage and management (thinking, language, and working memory) is activated by sequential finger movements.

In her article “The 'Write Stuff' for Preventing and Treating Disabilities," Dr. Berninger identifies handwriting problems as disabilities. “Written language disabilities are extremely prevalent in the population of children with learning disabilities," she claims. "Writing disabilities are more persistent than reading disabilities.” Some of the reasons she gives are underdeveloped spelling; handwriting and/or composing skills; processing problems related to handwriting, spelling and composition to include orthographic or phonological coding, fine motor planning, automatic letter retrieval and production, working memory, etc; and attention deficit disorder. “Some children have simply not had a program of coordinated, explicit instruction in all the component skills needed to develop a functional writing system,” she notes.

Her article includes this observation: “Although many people believe that writing is primarily a motor process, our research supports a different point of view: Writing is a written language process. The intactness of fine motor skills alone does not account for handwriting problems as much as the ability to code an identified language symbol (letter) in memory.”

There’s a unique relationship between the brain and hand when it comes to thought composition. Berninger says handwriting differs from typing, which requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. This contrast is reminiscent of the difference between learning to read by phonetics and whole language.

Karin James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University, conducted research using an MRI machine to detect neural activity in the brains of children. After being shown letters, and receiving instruction, children who practiced the letters by hand showed more enhanced neural activity than those who simply looked at letters.

This research is borne out by many homeschoolers. Anne Johnson of Helena, Montana, a homeschooling mother of seven, says her children appreciate the strong emphasis she places on handwriting skills. Her daughter India believes she learned language more thoroughly by having to write it rather than type it.

Anne explains, “The content of a written piece is the same however it is created, but handwriting is a unique expression of the writer and has value beyond just the development of motor skills. It’s a physical manifestation of the individual. There’s a lot of value to that. But, even as a skill, it has to be developed, and in so doing also develops the person learning it.”

She continues, “We live in such a sound-bite world that many younger people do not or cannot communicate with complete thoughts or sentences. But because handwriting requires time, it forces the brain to learn the skill of completing a thought. Learning it has also developed the character traits of patience, and discipline and self-control in my children — and the desire to create something to be proud of.”

She gives high praise to The Writing Road to Reading, by Romalda Spalding, which supports the research that writing is not just a skill; rather, writing, reading and speech are all integrated components of learning language.

Lisa Shaw, who homeschools her three children in Texas, noticed that they were unable to memorize as well when they used a keyboard, and that their thoughts didn’t flow as easily. Her daughter Tori now memorizes by repetitive writing — because while she’s writing she’s also reading, cementing the thoughts in her mind. “Writing makes you put your thoughts together better, and develops discipline. It requires you to build more parts of your brain,” says Lisa.

According to Bounds, some physicians claim adults can also benefit by practicing handwriting. With aging, handwriting can be a good cognitive exercise to sharpen the brain.

Her WSJ article continues, “Similarly, adults benefit when learning a new ‘graphically different’ language, such as Mandarin, or symbols used in mathematics or chemistry, Dr. James says. 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 handwriting and then a computer keyboard. 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.”

There's real value in learning and maintaining this skill, even though we increasingly use electronic means of communication requiring keyboards or pads. New software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to recapture the use of handwriting. Hand-held devices like tablets and smart phones are adding to the use of “electronic handwriting.”

Bounds notes that Hartford Day School kindergartners in Bel Air, Maryland, though taught to write on paper, recently began tracing letter shapes on an iPad screen using a handwriting application. Kay Crocker, a teacher at the school, remarked: "Children will be using technology unlike I did, and it's important for teachers to be familiar with it. You still need to be able to write, and someone needs to be able to read it."

Bounds adds in her article, “Dan Feather, a graphic designer and computer consultant in Nashville says he's 'never adapted well to the keypads on little devices.' Instead, he uses a $3.99 application called 'WritePad' on his iPhone. It accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus, then converts it to text for email, documents or Twitter updates.”

Our modern world sometimes doesn’t add to the body of man’s knowledge, but replaces old with new. Consequently, bodies of truly needful knowledge are lost. These handwriting studies may go a long way to recapturing the art of the pen.

But the irony of using electronic means to bolster handwriting skills won’t be lost on most readers.

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