Can’t Trust It: Typing vs Handwriting

I read a portion of this article on keyboarding being overrated. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’m not really aggressive either way. I do think it makes little sense to make two different ways to make the same letters. Montessori leads with cursive and I tend to think she’s done a better job thinking this through.

Anyway, I took at look at the first paragraph with apparent proof.

Brain scans during the two activities also show that forming words by hand as opposed to on a keyboard leads to increased brain activity(pdf). Scientific studies of children and adults show that wielding a pen when taking notes, rather than typing, is associated with improved long-term information retention, better thought organization, and increased ability to generate ideas.

Link one leads you the Zane Blosner sponsored Handwriting in the 21st Century? Educational Summit. Zane Blosner also sponsors the national handwriting contest where I’m very sad to say you cannot see the winners’ handwriting.

Let’s pretend this summit1 isn’t run by a company that sells handwriting solutions. The majority of brain related references here are cited as James, K.H. “How Printing Practice Affects Letter Perception: An Educational Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012. I believe that’s Dr. James. Seems legit but I can’t really see what was presented other than the the one page summary included on page 5. All I get is-

  • After printing letters (interacting with the letters to create context, rather than simply observing letters as objects), brain activation in the children studied was significantly increased and showed similarity to that of adults.6
  • When preschool children looked at and identified a letter, they did not exhibit the same brain activation as adults.6
  • In the brain’s visual regions, when comparing writing, typing, tracing, and visual control, much more activation was exhibited after the writing experience than any of the other experiences.6

Sure feels like ‘leads to increased brain activity’ is a big claim based on research that appears to have been focused on preschool children. I can’t tell if the same thing would be true for people who can write fluently. Is more brain activity a good thing? Maybe it means that automaticity hasn’t been achieved and it eats into available cognitive capacity. That might be good when you’re learning to read/write but bad when you’re trying to learn or do other things.

Our second link ‘wielding a pen when taking notes, rather than typing, is associated with improved long-term retention’ links to this paper- Note-Taking With Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall. I’ve read this a few times and I can’t figure out where that idea is coming from. This is the portion that jumps out to me.

When people used a computer to take notes, they took more notes and recalled more of the lecture than when they took notes by hand. Moreover, when they used a computer and were instructed to try and transcribe the lecture, this strategy was associated with the most notes and the best performance on both the free recall and short answer tests, with performance not only exceeding that of those who took organized notes with a computer but also that of those who used either handwritten note strategy. And because the benefits of transcribing with a computer extended to recall of both the main idea units and the important details, it is clear that the superior overall performance of those using this strategy was not simply due to their including more unimportant information in their notes or in their free recall.

I keep going back and trying to figure out what I’m missing.

On to the next link which links to a paper focused on kindergarteners- “Examining the contribution of handwriting and spelling to written expression in kindergarten children” which then makes this reference . . .

From 2001 to 2006, a longitudinal study with annual assessments of typically developing writers in first through fifth grade and third through seventh grade was conducted. . . . The most surprising finding was that, when writing by pen and by keyboard were compared on alphabet writing, sentence constructing, and text composing, children wrote more words and wrote words faster (Berninger, Abbott et al., 2008) and expressed more ideas (Hayes & Berninger, in press) when composing text by pen than by keyboard from second to sixth grade; but for letter writing and sentence constructing, the keyboard often showed advantages (Berninger, Abbott et al., 2008). Children with learning disabilities need explicit instruction in handwriting as well as keyboarding and both accommodations in the form of using a laptop and ongoing explicit instruction in all aspects of writing from planning to translating to reviewing and revising (Berninger, 2006a, 2008a; Berninger, Abbott et al., 2008). (emphasis mine)

Which would lead us the Hayes and Bernigner article “Relationships between idea generation and transcription: How act of writing shapes what children write” but I’ve spent enough time.

I hate stuff like this. Pretending things are clear when they’re muddy. It’s a messy world. Most things depend on lots of other things. Don’t pretend it’s easy. Don’t link to a bunch of research and pretend it says more than it does.

1 Not just for mountains!

Comments on this post

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog) said on July 27, 2017 at 11:31 am

    Look at you wearing a Mike Caulfield hat 😉

    Like you I tire of wrapping simple explanations for human behavior in a pile of research. I cannot explain my own behavior simply how can anyone extend it to a population? And maybe it’s not the mode of how writing is done, just that writing itself is helpful in thinking? Or not. Maybe more research is needed.

    PS: Only 1 footnote? You must be tired from all that research reading.