Writing and Cognition

We no longer write by hand. Technology replaced this intimate ritual of literally putting our thoughts to paper with a completely different mechanism. Why should we bother teaching children to write by hand when we have digital tools that can make writing such an easy, flowing process?

Well, we still should. And I am not saying that because I am a “traditional” teacher or a Luddite living in the 21st century with inescapable nostalgic flashbacks going through her mind. We should because it matters to learning. And cognitive science and neurophysiology have proved the importance of handwriting in cognition during childhood.

The neurophysiology of writing

Writing has been described mostly as a mental process and little attention has been paid to the physicality of writing and its impact on memory, attention and learning.  Anne Mangen, associate professor at the University of Stavanger,  and neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay (University of Marseille) have shed light into this aspect of writing in their study (Digitzing Literacy –  reflections on the haptics of writing, 2010).

They begin by discussing the importance of our bodies in learning. As infants, and later on as children, we begin to learn the and about the world literally through our senses, and the hands and the act of touching are a critical part of this exploration.

“Our use of hands for purposive manipulation of tools plays a constitutive role in learning and cognitive development (…). Furthermore, brain imaging studies (using fMRI) show that the specific hand movements involved in handwriting support the visual recognition of letters.”

Research on writing in the field of cognitive sciences focused mostly on the visual aspect of writing, rarely addressing the kinesthetic (motor) component. However, more recently, new theories in psychology, phenomenology and neuroscience converge towards the concept of “embodied cognition” indicating that “perception and motor action are closely connected and, indeed, reciprocally dependent.” (Mangen A. & Luc, 2010)

Extensive research (James & Gauthier, 2006; Kato et al , 1999; Longcamp & Velay, 2003; Matsuo et al., 2003; Vinter & Chartrel, 2008; Wolf, 2007) comes to solidify this new approach to writing and demonstrates the critical importance that sensory modalities involved in handwriting (both vision and proprioception) have – they are so closely linked that strong neural connections have been revealed between perceiving, reading, and writing letters in different languages and symbol/writing systems.” And that includes logo-graphic languages. 

I made a chart for an easier comparison between these two modalities:

Handwriting Typing
unimanual Use of hands bimanual
slower process Speed fast
Unequivocal= each letter has a specific shape associated with a specific hand movement Visual-motor relationship Equivocal= there is no distinction since the letter is “readymade” and selected by hitting keys
Restricted to where the pencil/pen hits the paper; Visual attention Decoupled from the motor movements (key- motor, screen-visual)
Single focus Split between two spaces-          The motor space (keyboard)-          The visual space (screen)

The last element, visual attention, is crucial for learning in early childhood. The profound difference between handwriting and typing as two distinctive ways of employing attention has implications on early cognitive development:

“Hence, attention is continually oscillating between these two spatiotemporally distinct spaces, which are, by contrast, conjoined in handwriting.”

Even if in typewriting we do build a mental image of the keyboard so as to know which key to hit, a “keypress schema” (so a spatial image to further connect motor actions emerges), there is no specific relationship between a certain letter and movement:

“The same key can be hit with different movement, different fingers and even with a different hand (n.n. which is impossible in handwriting). Thus, the visuomotor association involved in typewriting has little contribution to letter recognition.”

Replacing handwriting with typing does have an impact on the cerebral representation of letters and thus on letter memorization. Investigations in handwriting/typing distinctions in pre-readers (Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou et al., 2005) and adults (Longcamp, Boucard, Gilhodes &Velay, 2006) confirmed that letters or characters learned through typing were recognized less accurately than those written by hand. That happens because each activates different processing areas in the brain – handwriting relies on the left Broca’s area, known to be involved in the execution, imagery and observation of characters.

“Writing movements may thus contribute to memorizing the shape and/or orientation of characters.”

Conclusions

  • It is obvious (see research links at the end) that there is a strong correlation between the cognitive processing and the sensorimotor interactions with the physical device, whether it is a pencil or a digital tool.
  • Digital technologies will drive learning in the future and those who doubt that should review their own ways of communication (when was the last time they used a pen or wrote a letter by hand?). However, more research should be aimed at how learning via digital devices reframes our own experiences through the lens of embodied cognition. Theories built interdisciplinarily between fields like biology, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy are shaping our understanding of cognition – motor theories of perception (Liberman), enactive approach (Varela et al.), sensorimotor contingency (O’Regan & Noë) etc.
  • While handwriting aids letter recognition and memorization, different technologies are available for those who struggle and teachers should  make use of them. Writing, like reading, is a cultural product and is not naturally learned. We need to accommodate the needs of the children who experience difficulties in handwriting.
  • There are differences in how girls and boys acquire this skill. Girls are generally 9 months ahead of boys in literacy skills and that is partly due to difference in the size of corpus collusum (the area that separates our left and right brain hemispheres) – in girls it is larger.

“Essentially, a boy’s linguistic skills are more concentrated on the right side of the brain or the spatial, non-verbal and/or visual side, which is why boys have difficulty sequencing linguistic exercises, a necessary requirement for most beginning readers.” (psychologist Dr. David Sortino, Brain Research and Cursive Writing, May 2013)

Further readings:

Anne Mangen – all here studies are available here

Psychology Today – What Learning Cursive Does to Your Brain 

Science Daily – Better Learning Through Handwriting 

Dr. David Sortino – Brain Research and Cursive Writing

PBS Org – Misunderstood Minds – The Basics of Writing 

Hanover Research – The Importance of Teaching Handwriting in the 21st Century

Science of Learning – Teaching Handwriting Skills 

Judy Mills  (neurologist) – her website here 

Hardwired for Writing – The Intelligence of the Hand 

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2 Comments to “Writing and Cognition”

  1. I can understand why handwriting is important in developing letter knowledge. Your description and research are clear. What I’m wondering about is, how important is it to learn letters using a gesture and a sound? So if you’re teaching the letter ‘s’, you’d hiss like a snake and make a snake with your hands. The way I understand it, it’s something you’d only do with students who have processing difficulties but I’m wondering if I’m missing something. Do you have any research or clarifications on this?

  2. I would use sound and movement to reinforce sound-letter relationship not only with struggling learners but also with very young children. Although this does not substitute spelling per se, it does aid in the consolidation of this connection (audio-visual/ sound-letter). Young children can also practice spelling using different materials (i.e. play dough, tracing letters with the finger in sandboxes etc.) because it develops fine motor skills in anticipation of the pencil grip/use, as well as it strengthens visual memory of the letters.

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