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Handwriting Matters, After All

Handwriting is largely viewed as an outdated skill: typing offers more efficient ease to teachers and students alike. The new Common Core standards [1], adopted in most states, only includes teaching of legible writing in kindergarten and first grade.

But according to new studies by psychologists, this recent dismissal of handwriting could have unintended consequences: the underrated skill is actually a boon to brain development and memory retention. New York Times reporter Maria Konnikova explained these studies in a Monday article [2]:

When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging [3] in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

… Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer [4] of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported [5] that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.

Current educational trends tend to emphasize vocational and pragmatic elements of education. Which subjects will help students get the most lucrative jobs? Which will make them the most competitive on a global stage? Which skills guarantee the greatest college-readiness?

Yet in the midst of our quantification, we’ve lost qualitative ground. In the age of numbers, we can’t teach handwriting because it is beautiful, fun, and a building block for deeper communication and understanding of language. Instead, we dispose of it—at least until the studies come out, in all their number-crunching glory, to tell us that handwriting is actually worth something. Then, in a rather ironic twist, we discover that these qualitative skills actually hold some quantitative value, after all.

This discovery reflects our larger discussion of the humanities and their role in the modern sphere: we wonder what such studies are worth, when the modern job market seems to demand experiential, pragmatic skill sets. We vest importance in what you can do, not how you can think.

Yet the new data on handwriting seems to have some people, formerly dismissive of handwriting’s importance, conceding ground. One Yale psychologist admitted that “Maybe it [writing by hand] helps you think better.”

Some people have always believed handwriting to be beautiful and important. They know writing by hand has helped them connect meaningfully with information, in addition to helping them communicate clearly with others. But perhaps there is a level of sentiment in such value-based affection. Thankfully, we now have the data to prove that, aside from its qualitative benefits, handwriting serves important quantitative purposes, as well. Hopefully some teachers (and students) will see these truths, and take note.

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#1 Comment By Rachel On June 4, 2014 @ 9:45 am

The studies were about manual writing vs. typing, not about printing vs. cursive. It’s cursive that’s on the Common Core chopping block, not manual writing altogether. I’m sorry, but this whole post is a red herring.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 4, 2014 @ 9:49 am

Very nice and interesting article. Very nice.

#3 Comment By philadelphialwyer On June 4, 2014 @ 10:15 am

Not clear what the point is. IF handwriting (and I’m hardly convinced by the pretty picture brain imaging claims) has some sort of value beyond aesthetics, than fine, it has that value and should be treated as such. But if its value is only aesthetic than, no, it is not as if it should be banned or forgotten, but it should only be valued for what it is. And I fail to see what is wrong with a process that proceeded on that basis.

Then too, we see the personal bias. For some of us, handwriting, particularly cursive, was never “beautiful” or “fun.” Rather, we were repeatedly called onto to the carpet, through the dreaded “penmanship” grade, because we could not reproduce our letters in a fashion that was pleasing to our teachers, or, truth be told, to anyone, including ourselves. Some of us, in short, just weren’t good at it, even though we tried hard and were good students overall. We could read our writing, and, with a little effort, so could someone else. But it never looked good, and it never conformed to standard. Like singing and dancing and playing an instrument, or drawing, and so on, some folks just don’t have the knack for it.

For us, the switch in college from handwritten to typed papers was a god send. And the later switch to word processing and keyboard based computers generally even more of one.

As far as I’m concerned, kids should, when possible, be given the choice of using keyboards or hand writing. And the aesthetic value of hand writing can be preserved in any event. But let’s not pretend, yet again, that something that actually improves education and life generally is somehow a “bad thing” because of some obscure, unconvincing nostalgia, coupled with a half baked study or two.

#4 Comment By Chris On June 4, 2014 @ 10:15 am

@ Rachel. Though I suspect we are on different sides of the argument I agree with your comment. I have yet to see a study that specifically talks about the inherent value cursive writing (not handwriting) has. I would be interested to see it, but I doubt something like that actually exists. Sure, there’s lots of evidence that points to the valuable decoding skills children get from writing cursive, but I could teach a class in pig Latin if I was seeking to simply have them work out their “decoding muscles”. And apropos of that point, one’s printed handwritten signature is just as unique as one’s cursive handwritten signature.

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On June 4, 2014 @ 11:01 am

Do any of those people lauding the benefits of taking notes by hand as opposed to typing remember sitting in a classroom?

The only way you’re going to keep up with your average college lecturer via handwriting is by taking everything down in shorthand.

#6 Comment By stef On June 4, 2014 @ 11:41 am

Many homeschoolers teach Getty Italic, which basically looks like italic print, but is joined.

And many people compose far better with a word processor than by hand. Beauty has nothing to do with it; it’s a matter of getting the thoughts onto the page.

#7 Comment By cdugga On June 4, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

Actually, some of us probably had already figured out the benefits of handwriting without a scientific study to try and quantify it. The secret is out. We never really were that smart. We just wrote it down, composing in our own words and writing down the things we needed to know. That is how to remember material for the test and ace it!
I like writing. If liking it is the only benefit then that should probably be enough. If people don’t like to write, making them write later on in life when they have so many other distractions, is probably not going to benefit them as much as we might like. I remember discussions about reading and having the same conclusion. I liked reading and so the benefits from reading were a bonus. Most of my peers had a different attitude and would say that they had to read so much in school, now they have little interest in reading anything other than what they absolutely have to read. Those that dislike reading and writing simply put themselves at a disadvantage. But it explains so much about our uninformed and misinformed society where so much more information is available. It is so much easier to just listen to what is told us and pick the parts we are predisposed to believe or feel are useful for what we already believe. Many times while writing I am able to broaden my initial conclusions, or recognize gaps from lacking complete information on the subject, or detect a mis-direction from the flow of logic (gotta fix that there!). Typeing has allowed all of us a quicker way to adjust how we compose thought. But manual handwriting, starting at an early age, taught us how to compose thoughtfully to begin with. What happens when the coming generations no longer do that? Something, something…reactionary. Animals react. We should be doing so much more. But I have given up on making my writing pretty. I’m shooting for legibility, just for myself! Like, did I write that left handed or what?

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 4, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

Maybe, it’s just me. But I am not sure there isn’t too much being read into this.

What I get is cursive enhances critical thinking skills by the nature of its mechanics. It is more complex than typing in that one has to actually design the letters or follow a particular design by which to form words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Seems a simple contention. Not even very controversial.

I don’t usually slobber over articles and I am not slobbering here, but this article seemed rather straight forward.

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On June 4, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

Very interesting. Thank you! Time to refresh a very deteriorated skill. I can hardly read my own sometimes.

#10 Comment By James Kabala On June 4, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

“Handwriting is largely viewed as an outdated skill: typing offers more efficient ease to teachers and students alike.”

I like cursive, but this is a straw man; no one says not to teach printing.

#11 Comment By STJ On June 4, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

Cursive doesn’t matter. Hand writing however, does. I always took notes by hand and it helped me process the information much, much better than my friends who typed. Someone up above said they couldn’t keep up without shorthand. I never had that problem and with many professors moving to powerpoint it’s even easier to take notes by hand.

#12 Comment By cka2nd On June 6, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

Even in grad school in the 90’s my fellow students weren’t taking notes with laptops, but for myself, I’d probably feel the urge to edit my notes as I was typing them and would be more likely to fall behind then if I am writing them down.

I’ve become very skeptical of the technophiles over the years, even as I’ve become hooked by the word processor, the internet and the DVR.

#13 Comment By JD On June 7, 2014 @ 6:43 am

When taking notes – in school, at work, a seminar – I prefer(ed) handwriting, and cursive was easier/quicker. At some later point, I would review my notes and clarify or re-write legibly. Typing notes does not work for me when I need to get information captured quickly. However, typing is much better for me when I have plenty of time to think before I finalize. (BTW, my kids have gotten English and Math answers wrong because they – my kids – could not read their own handwriting!)

#14 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 8, 2014 @ 6:41 pm


“…manual handwriting, starting at an early age, taught us how to compose thoughtfully to begin with. What happens when the coming generations no longer do that? Something, something…reactionary. Animals react. We should be doing so much more.”

Maybe we should go back to the quill and ink well, or even cuneiform, that way we can be sure to be compose even more “thoughtfully!”

Jeez, the neo luddite force is strong here. As is the “when I was your age”/every new generation is worse fallacy.

And, by the way, “animals” don’t write at all.

“Typeing [sic] has allowed all of us a quicker way to adjust how we compose thought.”

Yeah, and word processing is even better. And the process of multiple drafts, editing and re writing, and so on, is equally as important to good writing as is “composing thoughtfully to begin with,” if not more so.

Word processing is a tool. Like most new tools, it doesn’t one hundred per cent replace the old tool. It just provides another way of doing something. Word processing, especially with some of the advanced programing now available, is a god send to those with physical disabilities, manual and vision related. And is useful to most people in at least some circumstances.

Think in terms of analogy to payment methods…coins did not entirely replace barter, paper money did not entirely drive out coins, nor checks paper money, nor credit cards checks, and nor, today, have various forms of on line payment driven out credit cards, or any of the older forms. Each has its place. And there is such a thing as personal preference, too.

Same here, with writing. Some folks like to print, others to write cursively, and others still to use the computer, from start to finish. Some folks use a combination of the methods, using different tools for different tasks, and different steps, in the process of writing.

Why is it even necessary to choose up sides?

#15 Comment By MomC13 On June 9, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

One point I have not seen addressed in these comments is that of the occasional NECESSITY to handwrite something, and therefore the importance that it be legible. I work in a field that requires taking handwritten notes many times a day, as well as reading the handwriting of others: pharmacy. All of my coworkers and I must take down information from phone calls onto small squares of paper, and we do not have means at our disposal to do this task other than by hand. We must read prescriptions, often written by doctors we know, and sometimes from doctors we do not know. We must decipher charts filled out by nurses and faxed to us. Both reading handwriting and writing by hand are important skills in the medical field, and are probably best learned and practiced while young.
And I expect there’s something to the “brain-enhancement” claim, too. Kids ought to learn a wide variety of stuff early on. On a somewhat-related tangent, I believe that music is a language, that it helps a child learn math, and that children should be exposed frequently to both orderly music (like Mozart and Bach and Beethoven) and to at least one foreign language from birth. But maybe that’s a topic for another discussion.