When was the last time you held a pen or pencil to jot something down? Or perhaps even more importantly, when was the last time your kids used pen and paper in order to write?
Computers and I-pads
Ever since the introduction of personal computers into our daily lives, keyboards have competed with pen and pencil for pole position on our desks. With the arrival of I-pads and smart phones the digital keyboard has given the final blow, relegating writing utensils to the background for good. Who needs a ball pen anyway?
The other day a colleague of mine at the school where I teach sent me a link to an online research article that explored the effect of learning to write on developing reading skills. (Francken, 2013 *) This article caught my eye, since keyboards have become omnipresent in our schools. Computers and I-pads have become indispensable in the education of today’s young generation. At the same time, language teachers are increasingly concerned about their students’ declining reading skills.
Even if we embrace new technologies for the ease and efficiency they bring, there is more to this increased digital writing than meets the eye. The difference between a printed letter A and a written letter A lies in the motoric aspect of the act of typing versus writing. The shift from pen to keyboard is a motor shift from a specific and controlled movement, with each letter having unique characteristics, towards a more universal tapping or hitting of keys, where the difference between the various letters is no longer represented by different movements.
Apparently, only a few studies so far have looked at the effect typing has on writing skills and reading skills. Does typing involve a different type of brain activity compared to writing? Do people who rarely write by hand un-learn certain general motor or cognitive skills?
Learning to Write
I was interested in reading that, apparently, children learn to distinguish among letters by writing them by hand. At first their written letters are not very stable – each time they write a certain letter, it may turn out quite different. By considering different versions of a written letter, children get to know the crucial features of a certain letter. Therefore, the variation is essential to the development of writing skills. And here is the important part: when a child that cannot yet read, writes a letter, the same brain area is activated as when an adult is reading. This specific activation does not happen when the child types that letter.
While learning to write a certain letter a specific motor program is recorded in the child’s brain: a description of the specific movements required to produce that letter. This motor program is activated whenever the child wants to write that letter again. Research seems to indicate that the very same program becomes active when the child sees (or reads) the letter.
When a child learns a new letter by typing it, no unique motor program comes into being, because the typing action does not have a relationship with the form of the letters – the same movement is made for all keys.
Writing versus typing
In summary then, the act of writing improves fine motor skills. The motor programs initiated by writing, are used as well during reading. On the other hand, when children learn letters by typing they do not develop these programs.
In addition, the variation in letter formation during the learning process plays an important role in learning to recognize the non-variant features of letters. Finally, when children who have learned letters by writing them see these letters certain brain areas become active that are also active in adults that are reading.
All of this points in the same direction: writing is not the same as typing. There are convincing indications that the motor component of writing supports the recognition of letters and may support the development of reading skills.
Pen and paper
In our schools these days typing is rapidly replacing writing, with typed and printed or digitally sent work increasingly taking the place of work written by hand. The recent findings regarding the importance of the motor component of writing give new meaning to the age-old teacher’s advice for revising words: use pen and paper.
* For those interested in pursuing this subject further: even though the article that forms the basis for this blog post was written in Dutch, its bibliography contains English titles exclusively,
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