The Benefits of Writing by Hand: How Handwriting Helps Kids Learn

For the past few years, handwriting has been a bit of a hot topic. Although more and more schools are choosing to keep handwriting in the curriculum (including cursive, which is making a comeback!), some still wonder about the benefits of writing by hand. Teachers have so much they have to squeeze into each day, and some question whether handwriting instruction is worth that valuable classroom time.

The short answer? Yes, it is worth it, and there’s an ever-growing body of research to back up that claim. (And here’s a secret: handwriting instruction doesn’t have to take much time!)

Research shows that writing by hand helps us learn. When students develop fluent and functional handwriting skills, they can write by hand to learn in every subject area.

Let’s take a look at what research says about the benefits of writing by hand.

What Are the Benefits of Writing by Hand?

Handwriting Activates the Brain

Handwriting and the Brain

One of the most notable benefits of writing by hand is how it activates the brain. Dr. Karin James, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, uses fMRI scans to study how handwriting affects children’s brains. She discovered that when children write by hand their brains light up with adult-level activation. However, when they type, there is very minimal activation.

So what does this increased “activation” mean? Handwriting activates areas of the brain associated with reading, working memory, and language. When these areas of the brain are engaged, especially together, it increases learning.

Handwriting Reinforces Literacy Development

Handwriting helps build reading readiness skills such as letter recognition, directionality, and visual-perceptual skills. For example, Dr. James’ recent research shows that writing letters improves letter recognition in preliterate children – more so than typing letters or even tracing them.

Writing also helps students learn basic reading and language principles. As students practice writing letters and words from left to right and top to bottom, they are reinforcing the visual tracking skills utilized for reading. When they write to convey their thoughts or show what they’ve learned, they have to put letters together to form words. Although young students may not spell the words correctly right away, writing helps them learn letter sounds and practice putting them together.

Handwriting Improves Writing

Dr. Virginia Berninger, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, discovered through her research that students actually write better – and more – when writing by hand as opposed to typing:

“What we found was that children until about grade six were writing more words, writing faster and expressing more ideas if they could use handwriting…than if they used the keyboard.”

Handwriting Improves Writing

Dr. Berninger also discusses the benefits of being “multilingual by hand.” As she followed students from second grade through fifth grade, she discovered that manuscript writing, cursive writing, and typing are each “associated with distinct and separate brain patterns.”

This may suggest that there is an added benefit to learning cursive in addition to manuscript. Dr. Berninger recommends focusing on writing readiness skills in preschool, manuscript in kindergarten to second grade, cursive in third grade, and finally introducing typing in fifth grade.

Handwriting Helps Us Remember & Comprehend

Another study shows that writing notes by hand leads to higher test scores. Although the students taking notes by hand wrote significantly fewer words, they performed much better when tested on the material. This may be because, when writing by hand, students process the information on a much deeper level. As they take notes, they are working to determine which parts of the lecture are worth writing down, rather than just transcribing the lecture verbatim.

Handwriting also eliminates distractions. Older students (and adults for that matter) may be tempted to check their email, scan Facebook, or turn to Google frequently while writing on a computer. When sitting with nothing more than a pen and paper, the writer can stay focused on the task at hand.

Handwriting Boosts Creativity

Writing by hand is also known to boost creativity. Many famous writers – including Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, and Quentin Tarantino – prefer to write by hand.

Handwriting can have an almost meditative quality to it, calming the mind and allowing ideas to flow more freely. It also forces the writer to slow down, giving the brain time to process thoughts and more carefully form the ideas they are transferring to paper.

Research shows us the benefits of writing by hand. Try these tips to make handwriting instruction simple and efficient. Just 15 minutes of handwriting instruction a few times a week can help your students develop a skill that boosts learning across the curriculum!

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Universal Handwriting provides sequential, developmentally appropriate handwriting instruction for grades PK-6.