Children are texting, tapping and typing on keyboards more than ever, leaving less time to master that old-fashioned skill known as handwriting.
So will the three "T's" replace a building block of education? It's not likely. The benefits of gripping and moving a pen or pencil reach beyond communication. Emerging research shows that handwriting increases brain activity, hones fine motor skills, and can predict a child's academic success in ways that keyboarding can't.
"For children, handwriting is extremely important. Not how well they do it, but that they do it and practice it," said Karin Harman James, an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. "Typing does not do the same thing."
Here's how handwriting makes its mark:
• Handwriting can change how children learn and their brains develop
Indiana University researchers used neuroimaging scans to measure brain activation in preliterate preschool children who were shown letters. One group of children then practiced printing letters; the other children practiced seeing and saying the letters.
After four weeks of training, the kids who practiced writing showed brain activation similar to an adult's, said James, the study's lead researcher. The printing practice also improved letter recognition, which is the No. 1 predictor of reading ability at age 5.
• Good handwriting can mean better grades
Studies show that the same mediocre paper is graded much higher if the handwriting is neat and much lower if the writing is not.
• Handwriting is faster
Researchers who tested second-, fourth- and sixth-graders found that children compose essays more prolifically — and faster — when using a pen rather than a keyboard. In addition, fourth- and sixth-graders wrote more complete sentences when they used a pen, according to the study, led by Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington professor of educational psychology who studies normal writing development and writing disabilities.
Her research has also shown that forming letters by hand may engage our thinking brains differently than pressing down on a key.
• Handwriting aids memory
If you write yourself a list or a note — then lose it — you're much more likely to remember what you wrote than if you just tried to memorize it, said occupational therapist Katya Feder, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa School of Rehabilitation.
• Handwriting proficiency inspires confidence
The more we practice a skill such as handwriting, the stronger the motor pathways become until the skill becomes automatic. Once it's mastered, children can move on to focus on the subject, rather than worry about how to form letters.
• Handwriting engages different brain circuits than keyboarding
The contact, direction and pressure of the pen or pencil send the brain a message. And the repetitive process of handwriting "integrates motor pathways into the brain," said Feder. When it becomes automatic or learned, "there's almost a groove in the pathways," she said. The more children write, the more pathways are laid down. But if they write them poorly, then they're getting a faulty pathway, so you want to go back and correct it, Feder said.
• Technology may help invigorate the practice
Handwriting applications that allow users to hand-scribble notes on the touch screen rather than paper may be useful tools. Researchers are also working on software to help improve handwriting.