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Why Cursive Handwriting Is Good for Your Brain

Writing by hand helps the brain learn and remember better, an EEG study finds.

Bruno Bueno/Pexels
Source: Bruno Bueno/Pexels

As school-age children increasingly rely solely on digital devices for remote- and in-class learning, many K-12 school systems around the world are phasing out cursive handwriting and no longer mandate that kids learn how to write in longhand script. Relying solely on a keyboard to learn the alphabet and type out written words could be problematic; accumulating evidence suggests that not learning cursive handwriting may hinder the brain's optimum potential to learn and remember.

A new EEG-based study by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) reaffirms the importance of "old-fashioned" cursive handwriting in the 21st-century's Computer Age. Even if students use digital pens and write by hand on an interactive computer screen, cursive handwriting helps the brain learn and remember better. These findings (Askvik, Van der Weel, & Van der Meer, 2020) were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology.

"Some schools in Norway have become completely digital and skip handwriting training altogether. Finnish schools are even more digitized than in Norway. Very few schools offer any handwriting training at all," Audrey van der Meer, a neuropsychology professor at NTNU, said in an October 1 news release. "Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence of increased digital activity."

For this study, Van der Meer and colleagues used high-density EEG monitoring to study how the brain's electrical activity differed when a cohort of 12-year-old children and young adults were handwriting in cursive, typewriting on a keyboard, or drawing visually presented words using a digital pen on a touchscreen, or with traditional pencil and paper.

Data analysis showed that cursive handwriting primed the brain for learning by synchronizing brain waves in the theta rhythm range (4-7 Hz) and stimulating more electrical activity in the brain's parietal lobe and central regions. "Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity in these particular brain areas is important for memory and for the encoding of new information and, therefore, provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning," the authors explain.

The latest (2020) research on the brain benefits of cursive handwriting adds to a growing body of evidence and neuroscience-based research on the importance of learning to write by hand. Almost a decade ago, researchers (James & Engelhardt, 2012) used MRI neuroimaging to investigate the effects of handwriting on functional brain development in young children.

Karin James and Laura Engelhardt found that handwriting (but not typing or tracing letter shapes) activated a unique "reading circuit" in the brain. "These findings demonstrate that handwriting is important for the early recruitment in letter processing of brain regions known to underlie successful reading. Handwriting, therefore, may facilitate reading acquisition in young children," the authors noted.

Another recent fMRI study (Longcamp et al., 2017) of handwriting and reading/writing skills in children and adults found that "the mastery of handwriting is based on the involvement of a network of brain structures whose involvement and inter-connection are specific to writing alphabet characters" and that "these skills are also the basis for the development of more complex language activities involving orthographic knowledge and composition of texts." (For more on the brain benefits of setting our keyboards aside see "Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter" by William Klemm.)

The latest (2020) study on the importance of cursive handwriting suggests that from an early age, children who are encouraged to augment time spent using a keyboard with writing by hand or drawing* establish neuronal oscillation patterns that prime the brain for learning. As the authors sum up:

"We conclude that because of the benefits of sensory-motor integration due to the larger involvement of the senses as well as fine and precisely controlled hand movements when writing by hand and when drawing, it is vital to maintain both activities in a learning environment to facilitate and optimize learning."

Audrey van der Meer and her NTNU colleagues are advocating for policymakers to implement guidelines that ensure school-age children receive a minimum of handwriting training and encourage adults to continue writing by hand. "When you write your shopping list or lecture notes by hand, you simply remember the content better afterward," Van der Meer said in the news release.

"The use of pen and paper gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain," she added. "A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write, and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning."

*For more on the benefits of drawing and the arts to improve K-12 classroom learning see "Arts-Integrated Pedagogy May Enhance Academic Learning."

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Aila Images/Shutterstock

References

Eva Ose Askvik, F. R. (Ruud) van der Weel and Audrey L. H. van der Meer. "The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults." Frontiers in Psychology (First published: July 28, 2020) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01810

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