Thursday, October 14, 2010

How Handwriting Trains the Brain

What a shame many children are no longer taught cursive.
Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning. During one study at Indiana University published this year, researchers invited children to man a "spaceship," actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called "functional" MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and "adult-like" than in those who had simply looked at letters.

"It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time," says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who led the study.

Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, 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 pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: 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.

Other research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

And one recent study of hers demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.


Brantigny said...

I transfered from one Catholic School to another just when I was to learn to write. In those days the curiculim dictated 2nd grade was the year when one learned to write. I stuggled for 2 years teaching myself to write. My parents got me the Parker method books and I filled reams and reams of notebooks with As, Bs, Cs, etc...
Now however I have a fairly good hand. I have inmates on my case load who ask me to print notes to them because they never learned to write.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Gaylon said...

I agree that writing by hand allows oneself to express ideas more quickly than by typing. In high school, it was always required of us to type our essays/papers. However when I sat at the computer and tried to think of what to write, my mind was always a blank. I finally ended up writing my essays on paper, making revisions here and there, before finally typing it up.

elena maria vidal said...

From a reader in Australia:

Dear Elaina Maria,

Your recent article on handwriting was a most interesting post. As a reader of your blog with a vision impairment who had to set aside her pen in her late teens (large print/print magnifying systems no longer cut it fully), and take up Braille at 16, being bi-literate until my mid 20's when the giant print world and associated magnifying tech became impractical, I am keenly aware that many vision impared children who learnt Braille even 25 years ago, never learnt to use the slate and stylus (pricking out one dot at a time in the six-dot system) but only the Braille writing machine, plus touchtyping. Now, Braille literacy is lagging also, and children are only taught audio; they are functionally illiterate all too often. these decisions have been made by sighted people who see themselves as best to judge over the blind...

the facts, however, speak for themselves...

though 63% of persons with a significant vision impairment in australia who are of working age, willing to work and equipped with work skills are out of a job, (38% possessing post graduate qualifications), 90% of all significantly vision impaired individuals who do hold down work are Braille literate, and use it daily.

The same functional MRI technology has demonstrated that the visual cortex, even in the totally blind, processes Braille literacy. Interesting... Braille literacy is active literacy, whereas audio learning is passive, and uses different parts of the Brain.

All languages have a corresponding six dot Braille equivalent, be they Chinese, Arabic, Ancient Greek or simple Roman text... road blocks are still actively put in place for the blind student of languages, who is even to this day, made to feel like an agitator if insisting on studying a non Roman alphabet language...

Feel free to break this down into sizeable chunks for placing in the comments box of this article.

I read your blog regularly and enjoy it thoroughly.

For assistive technology;

For christian resources:

There is no comparible RCC organization; am in the process of becoming Marounite Catholic; we are on the prowl for materials and may have struck paydirt but will keep you in the loop.

Journals such as the Journal of Vision Impairment and Blindness - the peak journal for the VI/B community either individuals, families, educators or support workers, has printed again and again over the years on the importance of Braille and true literacy for persons with non print capable sight conditions.



Alexandra said...

Good to know! I remember my mother(now age 73) telling me that she had to copy lines and lines of classic literature in school. She is an excellent writer(former journalist). I wish I had this sort of education. Mine was 1970's progressive - sorely lacking.

I've done this with my son(7th grade) recently, and his writing has really gotten much better! He also keeps a journal which at first was difficult for him to fill, but now his thoughts just flow.