The proliferation of devices in daily life has led to an international handwriting crisis. Teachers, parents, and politicians around the world are debating why they should bother spending time teaching what some say is a dated skill. Accustomed as we are to speedy, wifi-connected devices, we’ve come to prize the efficiency of typing and there seems to be no point to picking up a pen and scribbling on paper when keyboarding is so convenient, neat, and easy to copy-and-send.
Yet print and its squiggly cousin cursive are making a comeback in some US schools after scientific studies have proven their cognitive utility and because parents are clamoring for the preservation of the practical skill. For example, starting this fall in Louisiana, third to 12th graders will again study penmanship after a law was passed making it a requirement in 2016 (teachers got one year to prepare). Fourteen states in total are now including cursive in curricula after a decade where it seemed doomed to become an abandoned and outdated art.
Busting penmanship myths
It’s not just nostalgia—the efficiency of the keyboard may be overstated, at least in some cases.
“There’s a myth that in the era of computers we don’t need handwriting. That’s not what our research is showing. What we found was that children until about grade six were writing more words, writing faster, and expressing more ideas if they could use handwriting—printing or cursive—than if they used the keyboard,” University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger told the Washington Post. A leading expert in the field of handwriting education research, Berninger’s extensive work with students in elementary school indicates that learning handwriting improves kids’ ability to think.
The reasons for taking handwriting seriously are worth considering even if you’re not a kid or a parent worried about education. Anyone can benefit from penmanship’s cognitive benefits, whether you’re taking notes at a meeting or just trying to figure out what you think.
Engaging the brain
Brain scans during the two activities also show that forming words by hand as opposed to on a keyboard leads to increased brain activity(pdf). Scientific studies of children and adults show that wielding a pen when taking notes, rather than typing, is associated with improved long-term information retention, better thought organization, and increased ability to generate ideas.
No one can say why this is exactly, though researchers surmise one reason may be because when we write by hand, every letter of every word demands different actions, engaging the brain more. When we type, we repeat the same moves over and over again, whatever the word.
It may well be that the physicality of shaping letters cements concepts in the mind. For example, to type the word “typing,” I made the same motion on the keyboard six times, choosing which letter to type but not forming them. But if I were to write the same thing by hand, I’d have to shape six different letters and put them together. That takes more effort and seems to both demand more of the brain and leave a deeper imprint on the mind than typing. That imprint appears to be critical when learning new things.
Making choices while we write
Another reason that penning is more effective than typing seems to stem from handwriting’s limitations. Handwriting when taking notes forces us to make choices.
Researchers from Princeton University concluded in three studies of adult students taking notes on laptops and in longhand that transcription was less effective than selective translation of the information. “We found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand…whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning,” they wrote.
Perhaps when we capture less of what is said verbatim, we pay more attention. Since we can’t scribble everything that’s being said as fast as we can type it, we end up forced to make choices when handwriting, processing the information as we take it in instead of putting it all down automatically.
Reading into the past and future
There are practical reasons to keep the art of penmanship alive, putting questions of cognition aside.
Louisiana state senator Beth Mizell introduced the cursive bill at a constituent’s suggestion after he told her that the high school students he hired for summer jobs couldn’t read old handwritten land-transfer documents. (She didn’t give details about what these particular jobs involved, but it is true, generally speaking, that even when old records are scanned into new computerized systems, they may still contain cursive.
Mizell also heard from parents that their kids couldn’t read old family letters or even sign documents. “People were really upset that kids were no longer being taught to write cursive,” she told the Shreveport Times. “They print where the signature would be. It’s just little things like that.”
Take it from the greats
For adults wondering why they should handwrite when they have no time, rarely have to take in information that comes in lecture form, and have already established a signature, there are also some unscientific reasons to pick up a pen. For one, great writers often drafted by handand then typed, even after the advent of the typewriter—Susan Sontag, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov, to name a few. Today, Joyce Carol Oates continues with this tradition, though she’s also on Twitter and doesn’t shirk technology generally. Same goes for Quentin Tarantino, who says poetry can’t be typed on a computer, and Neil Gaiman, whose novels are drafted in notebooks.
Plus, there’s the priceless benefit of limiting distraction. Technology can be a trap. The simple act of shutting your laptop and putting pen to paper can help you to improve focus. There’s less chance you’ll end up spending your time online reading tweets and articles when you should be writing.