Wednesday, October 16, 2013

To Type or Not to Type? For Young Kids, It’s Not a Question

Adults of a certain age (in this case, over, say, 40) would notice a very startling difference between the college lectures of their university days and the lectures of today if they sat in on a class. Sure, some professors might use PowerPoint presentations instead of the whiteboard (or chalkboard, for those much older than 40). But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking, instead, about the laptop revolution. Students who take notes on paper with actual pens are fewer with each passing year. Instead, the professor’s voice floats over a sea of muffled bursts of staccato as students frantically type their notes into word processing programs (or, to be fair, chat with their friends on social media).


For some students, being freed from a pencil and paper is a lifesaver. Kids with graphomotor difficulties and real spelling problems benefit enormously from keyboarding and access to all the editing tools that are included in word processing programs. And by college, or even high school, most students can type much more quickly than they can write. But for the average student, is making the switch from hand writing to typing a good idea? A recent article in Scientific American unequivocally urges young children to step away from the keyboard.

The article discusses a series of studies that examine the relationship between handwriting and literacy tasks, like learning letters, spelling, and writing quality discourse. Highlighted findings include:

  • Subjects who hand wrote foreign letters were better able to recognize those letters later as they endeavored to learn them.
  • More brain activity was measured in subjects who looked at letters they had learned to hand write than in subjects who had studied the same letters by typing them. Interestingly, activity was found in both visual and motor areas of the brains of the former group.
  • Legible, automatic handwriting in young children was the single best predictor of spelling ability and quality and quantity of writing generated in written compositions when those same children grew older.

It seems that there are many good arguments for developing handwriting, even in the digital age. Here at The Yellin Center, we notice that children who don’t use systematic patterns of pencil strokes to form letters tend to produce sentences and paragraphs of lower quality; the act of forming letters seems to sap their cognitive resources too much to come up with strong sentences, choose good vocabulary, and remember the rules of written mechanics. We encourage teachers and parents of young children to scrutinize a child’s letter formation, not just the legibility and uniformity of the letters that end up on the page. If it is determined that a young child forms letters slowly and laboriously, instructional programs such as Handwriting Without Tears can be enormously helpful. On the other hand, older students—third grade and up, or so—may be better off learning to keyboard quickly.

Little research exists on handwriting versus typing in older students and adults, but Teachers College professor Stephen Peverly notes that his students, especially after learning about handwriting’s role in memory and knowledge acquisition, tend to leave their laptops in their bags when they come to class.

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