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Writing by Hand Boosts Brain Activity and Fine Motor Skills, Study Shows

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 Catherine Song / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Schools are becoming increasingly digitized, with some offering no formal cursive handwriting training at all.
  • Handwriting activates a specific part of the brain, which researchers believe is important for learning and memory.
  • Researchers believe it's vital that children are taught handwriting at school to establish the neuronal patterns in the brain that are beneficial for learning.

The keypad has replaced the pen in many walks of life—we email instead of writing a letter, create shopping lists on our smartphones, and give children tablets in lieu of pencil and paper. Many would argue that these modern ways of writing are easier and quicker, but there’s a downside.

A recent study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), published in Frontiers in Psychology, shows that cursive handwriting helps the brain learn and remember better. 

The researchers used high-density electroencephalogram (HD EEG) in a group of young adults and 12-year-old children to study brain electrical activity while they wrote in cursive by hand, typewriting, or drawing visually presented words, with varying degrees of difficulty. They found that of the three types, cursive handwriting produces the best learning and memory, even when using digital pens and writing by hand on an interactive computer screen.

Opening the Brain For Learning

“We found a specific activation pattern with handwriting that makes the brain open for learning,” says co-author Eva Ose Askvik, a member of the NTNU research team. “The activation pattern we found has in previous studies has proved to be important for memory and encoding of new information. This activation pattern was not apparent when typewriting, showing that these two writing strategies are processed differently by the brain.”

Eva Ose Askvik, researcher

When handwriting, fine and precise hand movements are involved. These sensory experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open it up for learning so that we both learn and remember better. 

— Eva Ose Askvik, researcher

The researchers concluded that both handwriting and drawing involves more sensory experience, which opens the brain up for learning. “When handwriting, fine and precise hand movements are involved, and this sensory-motor integration, the larger involvement of the senses, is beneficial for learning,” Askvik explains. “These sensory experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open it up for learning so that we both learn and remember better.”  

Maximum Brain Power

A lot goes on in the brain when we write by hand, says Colby Wiley, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital. The brain accomplishes tasks by activating networks of brain cells (neurons) that help different parts of the brain communicate. "Signals are sent through these networks, which are translated into thoughts and actions," Wiley says.

"When writing by hand, you are not only activating the motor cortex to make your hand physically write, but also motor planning aspects of the visual cortex to visualize the letters in your mind, language networks in the central and temporal lobes to actually communicate, and networks associated with reading and spelling," Wiley explains. It's these processes that tie into the parts of the brain that have to do with learning and memory.

Handwriting Training Is on the Way Out

A survey of 19 European Union countries showed that Norwegian children and teens spend the most time online (an average of almost 4 hours per day), and the preference for digital pursuits isn’t restricted to home life.

“Some schools in Norway have become completely digital and skip handwriting training altogether. Finnish schools are even more digitized than in Norway. Very few schools offer any handwriting training at all,” said NTNU neuropsychology professor Audrey Van der Meer in an October 1 news release.

Van der Meer continues, "Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence of increased digital activity."

In an ideal world, children would benefit from digital learning, without sacrificing cursive handwriting practice. “It’s vital that children are taught handwriting at school —they must be exposed to handwriting activities in school to establish the neuronal patterns in the brain that are beneficial for learning,” says Askvik. It’s also important that adults keep using handwriting activities when possible to maintain these activation patterns, she adds, such as writing a shopping list or taking notes by hand.  

Jillian Baden Bershtein, MEd

There can be and should be a nice balance between digital device usage and handwriting in today’s classroom. Bringing cursive back into the classroom should not be looked at as taking away other valuable instruction time, but as making time for a lost art form.

— Jillian Baden Bershtein, MEd

In the U.S., cursive writing education varies by district and by age, says Jillian Baden Bershtein, MEd, adjunct professor and student-teacher supervisor at The College of New Jersey. She sees the main issue not as how technology “killed” handwriting, but whether handwriting was even relevant in today’s society. “The choice between teaching cursive or teaching technology skills became an either-or due to time constraints and other heavy curriculum demands,” she says.

While Bershtein admits that digital tools "look very enticing and are super efficient when trying to meet the needs of every student," she believes there can be and should be a balance between digital device usage and handwriting in today’s classroom. "Bringing cursive back into the classroom should not be looked at as taking away other valuable instruction time, but as making time for a lost art form," she says.

Virtual learning in 2020, one of the many fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic, has taken a further toll on the practice of handwriting, Bershtein adds. "In upper elementary school, nearly nothing is written out by hand," she says. "While this great pandemic distance-learning experiment has sharpened typing and technology skills, the art of handwriting has diminished."

What This Means for You

To take a break from typing, get into the habit of keeping a pen and paper on hand for notes, shopping lists, etc. And if you really can't go back to the old-fashioned way, invest in a digital pen and install an app on your phone or tablet that lets you write by hand.

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Article Sources
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  1. Askvik EO, van der Weel FR, van der Meer ALH. The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults. Front Psychol. 2020. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01810

  2. Vinci-Booher SA, James KH. Neural substrates of sensorimotor processes: letter writing and letter perceptionJ Neurophysiol. 2016;115(1):1-4. doi:10.1152/jn.01042.2014

  3. Smahel D, Machackova H, Mascheroni G, et al. EU Kids Online 2020: Survey results from 19 countries. EU Kids Online. 2020. doi:10.21953/lse.47fdeqj01ofo

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