Researchers find that handwriting is a building block to learning in children

With the rise of technology, many believe that handwriting instruction should be a thing of the past. Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary-grade curriculum but that amounts to just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser, Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting-curriculum publishers. Even at institutions that make it a strong priority some parents say, “I can’t believe you are wasting a minute on this.”

Researchers are finding, however, that handwriting is a building block to learning. Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate; it actually engages the brain in learning. In a study at Indiana University, children were invited to man a “spaceship,” actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called “functional” MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The children were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. The neural activity in the children who had practiced printing by hand was far more advanced 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 the assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience who led the study.

Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. 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. 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. Another study 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.

Adults also benefit from handwriting. Some physicians feel that handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age. Studies suggest that there’s real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards.

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