Is Writing by Hand Best?

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Is Writing by Hand Best?

Jim Windell


            One of my secret pleasures is writing in longhand.

            I love sitting on a beach, in an airport, or in a comfortable chair at home writing with a ballpoint pen on a legal pad. In fact, hundreds of chapters of books and sundry other articles, blogs and columns have started out as scribbled longhand drafts.

            And when I say scribbled, I mean it. Admittedly I have atrocious handwriting. Just ask my wife. She can’t even decode my shopping lists. But I never learned to type and I still peck out work with two fingers on my computer keyboard. That could be one reason I favor first drafts written with a pen.

            But perhaps the other reason is that I grew up at a time when we were taught cursive in school by laboriously copying letters and words that were written by the teacher on the blackboard – yes, there were actually blackboards in my early school years. Penmanship was not one of my best areas of competence in elementary school, but still today, I constantly carry a legal pad or a steno pad and write down ideas and make notes about whatever I’m writing or anticipate writing.

            I thought I was just some sort of anachronistic old guy who was out of touch with the times. Not that that bothers me a great deal. However, I was surprised to run across some research that suggests that maybe – just maybe – I’m doing a good thing for my brain by continuing to write in longhand.

          A plethora of recent brain imaging research suggests handwriting's power stems from the relative complexity of the process and how it forces different brain systems to work together to reproduce the shapes of letters in our heads onto the page.

          Of course, both handwriting and typing involve moving our hands and fingers to create words on a page. But handwriting, it turns out, requires a lot more fine-tuned coordination between the motor and visual systems. This seems to more deeply engage the brain in ways that support learning.

          According to Marieke Longcamp, a cognitive neuroscientist at Aix-Marseille Université in Marseille, France, “Handwriting is probably among the most complex motor skills that the brain is capable of.” She points out that gripping a pen just right in order to produce words on paper is a complicated task, as it requires your brain to continuously monitor the pressure that each finger exerts on the pen. Then, your motor system has to delicately modify that pressure to re-create each letter of the words in your head on the page.

          “Your fingers have to each do something different to produce a recognizable letter," says Sophia Vinci-Booher, an educational neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. Adding to the complexity, your visual system must continuously process that letter as it's formed. Vinci-Booher explains that with each stroke, your brain compares the unfolding script with mental models of the letters and words, making adjustments to fingers in real time to create the letters' shapes.

          That's not true for typing. And brain imaging studies seem to confirm this. A study published recently found that when students write by hand, brain areas involved in motor and visual information processing “sync up” with areas crucial to memory formation, firing at frequencies associated with learning. “We don't see that [synchronized activity] in typewriting at all," says Audrey van der Meer, a psychologist and study co-author at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She suggests that writing by hand is a neurobiologically richer process and that this richness may confer some cognitive benefits.

          Some other experts agree. “There seems to be something fundamental about engaging your body to produce these shapes,” adds Robert Wiley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “It lets you make associations between your body and what you're seeing and hearing,” he says, which might give the mind more footholds for accessing a given concept or idea.

          Consider what kids are missing out on because they are not being taught to write cursive. One of the consequence of keyboards replacing pen and paper might be on children’s ability to learn the building blocks of literacy – letters. “Letter recognition in early childhood is actually one of the best predictors of later reading and math attainment," says Vinci-Booher. Her work suggests the process of learning to write letters by hand is crucial for learning to read them.

          “When kids write letters, they're just messy,” Vinci-Booher says. As kids practice writing “A,” each iteration is different, and that variability helps solidify their conceptual understanding of the letter.

          Research suggests kids learn to recognize letters better when seeing variable handwritten examples, compared with uniform typed examples. This helps develop areas of the brain used during reading for older children and adults, Vinci-Booher found.

          “This could be one of the ways that early experiences actually translate to long-term life outcomes,” she says. “These visually demanding, fine motor actions bake in neural communication patterns that are really important for learning later on.”

         “If young children are not receiving any handwriting training, which is very good brain stimulation, then their brains simply won't reach their full potential,” says van der Meer. “It's scary to think of the potential consequences.”

         To read the original article on which this blog was based, find it at:

Lambert, Jonathan. (2024). Why writing by hand beats typing for thinking and learning. NPR. Available:

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