The following is a translation of an article that appeared in the August 2013 issue of the French science magazine Science & Vie. Images, pull quotes, inset boxes, and sidebar illustrations from the article (along with their accompanying text) have been omitted.
Students Should Keep Writing by Hand
In the United States, children are encouraged to learn to write with a keyboard—but it’s a big mistake according to neuroscientists, whose research shows that this approach may consequently create difficulties in reading correctly.
The announcement has gotten a lot of coverage in the press. Starting in 2014, the teaching of cursive writing, that beautiful script of loops and upstrokes that we learn in France starting in kindergarten, will no longer be mandatory in many American schools. Instead, students will use word-processing software such as [Microsoft] Word in order to master the keyboard before leaving elementary school. Indeed, no fewer than 45 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, [a set of] shared pedagogical goals in math and English, leaving the teaching of cursive writing optional. What is required is the teaching of printing, which consists of separating all the letters of a word and which seems, in fact, closer to what is created with the help of a keyboard.
But the American reform goes further: after first grade (the equivalent of our cours préparatoire in France), the teaching of handwriting—of any kind—will no longer be mandatory. This isn’t surprising in a country where the majority of elementary school teachers currently devote an hour (or less) per week to teaching it, and where pressure from software manufacturers is intense. By contrast, it’s unthinkable in France, where we’re still viscerally attached to the use of paper and pencil in school.
Or is it unthinkable? It can’t be denied that we’re wielding the pen less and less [these days]. In a survey in Great Britain, 40% of citizens said that they hadn’t written by hand in the past six months. The survey wasn’t administered in France, but it’s a safe bet that the result would be similar. At a time when computers are taking over classrooms and we’re spending more time sending emails than picking up a pen to write long, handwritten letters, what use does writing by hand still have?
It would be tempting to respond spontaneously with “None” or “Not much”—making out a check, writing a postcard—especially given that learning to write by hand takes time and care. However, the answer is exactly the opposite, and it can be found in neuroscience, the recent research in which has been unanimous: handwriting still has its place in school, and abandoning it would be a serious mistake. Why? Because it appears to be essential for developing another critical skill: reading. One only has to study the brains of subjects who are reading or writing to be convinced.
In 2003, Marieke Longcamp and Jean-Luc Velay, from the Institut de neurosciences cognitive de la Méditerrannée, did an experiment. Their tool? Functional MRI (fMRI), an imagining technique that makes it possible to see the brain while it is active. The scientists asked adult volunteers to lie down in a scanner to read letters or pseudo-letters—symbols that resembled letters but that the subjects had never read or written. The researchers made a surprising observation: when the subjects saw the letters, an area within the premotor cortex involved in movement, namely Exner’s area, became active—and this was while the subjects were immobile inside the scanner. “This region often appears damaged when subjects have problems writing,” explains Velay. By contrast, when the subjects saw the pseudo-letters, there was no activity.
Next, the researchers asked the subjects to copy—that is, to write out by hand—these same letters and pseudo-letters. This time, Exner’s area became active in both cases. “It’s really a matter of a region of the brain being linked to writing,” says Velay. “While looking at letters that you’ve learned to write, you reactivate this sensorimotor area.” He continues, “The movement involved in writing leaves a trace, a sensorimotor memory that is called upon when we read to identify letters.” Reading, then, is part writing.
Does this mean that knowing how to write is essential for learning to read? After all, typing on a keyboard also involves hand movements that it seems would leave mental traces that would be reactivated while reading.
A “Reading Circuit”
To answer this question, the researchers designed a new experiment. After evaluating the reading and writing skills of 76 kindergarteners, the scientists divided them into two groups, one that had to learn letters by writing them, the other by typing them with a keyboard. Four weeks later, the researchers retested the children’s reading performance. “The letters learned by hand were more readily recognized than those learned with a keyboard,” explains Velay. The results are the same for adults who are taught a second language, such as Tamil or Bengali. With fMRI, the writing motor areas of the brain became active when the subjects saw characters written by hand. “If a child hasn’t learned to write by hand, he is unable to use sensorimotor memory for letters, which is missing,” says Velay. “This could certainly diminish or slow down his ability to identify characters. You can imagine that, confronted with dozens of words or entire pages of text, he would have problems.”
It would appear, then, that learning to write on a keyboard jeopardizes the aptitude of the future reader. The French researchers are not the only ones to support this hypothesis. Karin James, of the University of Indiana, goes even further: depriving a child of writing by hand prevents the creation of a “reading circuit” in the child’s brain. In 2010, her team published an initial study that backed up this idea. Twelve children, ages 4 to 5, were taught over four weeks to write letters or to visualize them. Before and after the instruction, the team tested them with fMRI—quite an achievement with children so young—in order to observe the change in their brain activity. Not only did the children who learned to write letters by hand identify them more readily as a result, but also their brains showed the creation of a network “similar to that of an adult,” explains James. This was not the case with the children who had learned the letters by looking at them.
To be certain that handwriting is indeed what is required and not just any motor activity, the team taught children of the same age to write letters, trace them, or type them with a keyboard before comparing their brain activity. The result? The “reading circuit” was activated only in those who had learned to write by hand. “Writing by hand appears to be essential for establishing a letter-recognition system,” maintains James.
From there it’s only a small step to the assertion that children who learn to write only with a keyboard will have problems reading—but it’s one that researchers are reluctant to take. The reason is that it would require being able to study such a group. However, for the moment, one doesn’t exist—at least not yet. Perhaps in a few years, but will it then be too late? “You would need to measure the consequences of abandoning handwriting before making a generalization,” warns Velay. “Imagine that one or two generations go by—fifty years or so—before you realize that children have a problem reading and that it’s perhaps linked to the fact that they no longer learn how to write by hand. Who would be capable of reintroducing large-scale instruction of writing in the schools?”
“Les élèves doivent garder la main !” Science et Vie. Août 2013.