The secret advantages of great penmanship

Don't abandon your pencils quite yet, kids

Letter writing
(Image credit: (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images))

When was the last time you actually wrote a letter by hand? Or practiced your cursive? It's probably been awhile. For most of us, writing by hand has taken a backseat to typing on a keyboard or tapping on a pocket-sized screen. And our schools are adopting these revised priorities, too.

More and more schools are placing less focus on old-fashioned handwriting instruction. Common Core State Standards — the controversial national curriculum guidelines for students from kindergarten through 12th grade — only call for handwriting instruction from kindergarten to the 1st grade, but research shows they need it beyond 1st grade. Common Core also requires students to be skilled in typing by the time they reach 4th grade.

Forty-three states have adopted Common Core. Now, those states still do have the option to include handwriting instruction in their curriculum, and many do, such as Utah, Indiana, and Idaho, to name a few.

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There are a wealth of conveniences to our digital revolution. But it's not all good. And lack of explicit handwriting instruction can put students at a disadvantage when it comes to reading and writing development, says Virginia Wise Berninger, professor of education psychology at the University of Washington.

"Learning to form letters by hand improves perception of letters and contributes to better reading and spelling," Berininger wrote in a May 2012 article for Principal magazine.

Previous research has also shown that letter printing affects certain parts of the brain.

In one study, researchers asked preschool children to draw, type, or trace a letter or a shape without being told what the object represented. MRI scans were taken to compare the brain activity before the experiment and after the experiment. They found that part of the brain used for reading and writing significantly increased in activity after the writing exercise.

"The study basically shows that when typing, less parts of the brain light up than handwriting letters," said Steve Graham, who studies and teaches writing development at Arizona State University. That doesn't necessarily mean there are long-term neurological benefits, though.

But writing by hand "can enhance letter recognition and possibly letter sound recognition if students write the letters as they sound them out," he said. "While this is important for reading, it's one of many aspects of what one needs to learn to read."

Writing by hand doesn't just help with reading. It also helps develops fine motor skills, notes Sandra Sülzenbrück, professor of business psychology at FOM University of Applied Sciences in Essen, Germany. Sülzenbrück believes that handwriting at a young age helps refine basic motor skills that we need for different movements or actions. Any kind of precise hand movement — such as controlling electronic or surgical tools — relies on a number of basic components like steadiness and smoothness of hand movements.

"If these components are not practiced well enough, related motor skills can suffer," she explains.

Children who have poor handwriting are also more likely to have visual-motor problems — difficulty copying shapes, letters, and numbers. In fact, one study showed a significant relationship between visual motor performance and the ability to copy letters legibly.

Some experts, like Florida International University professor Laura Dinehart, claim that better handwriting could mean better grades. That's based on a study Dinehart performed on 4-year-olds that found those who excelled in fine motor skills, like writing, were likely to excel in subjects like reading and math. The reason why isn't totally clear, but she thinks schools should rethink how much they focus on handwriting in the classroom.

"Schools have kind of dropped handwriting from their curriculum and I think it might have been jumping the gun a little bit," she told StateImpact, an NPR affiliate based in Florida.

Children with writing problems were also found to have a tendency to have lower math grades, lower verbal skills, and difficulty paying attention, according to a 2007 study. Researchers suspect that it may have to do with problems keeping up with the volume of written work required in the classroom, which could ultimately prevent academic progress.

None of this means keyboards are the enemy. For instance, Berninger advises that students should become skilled in digital and analog modes of writing. "We should help students become skilled in manuscript reading, or reading written material, cursive writing and touch typing," she said.

So don't be quick to chuck your pens, pencils, and stationary. Instead, consider keeping them around for a little while longer.

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