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Keywords: Writing, Handwriting, Tactility, Haptics, Fine Motor Skills, Abstraction, Learning, Mathematics
Handwriting helps letter recognition and categorization.
It may seem at first glance that the ability to abstract from concrete mathematical situations requires some special sort of sensory skill apart from those we use to grasp the mundane objects around us, for example, by seeing with our eyes or by tracing with our hands, but this is in fact not the case. On the contrary, there is good evidence that the development of fine motor skills like writing by hand is highly predictive of advanced mathematical achievement. When we learn using all our bodily resources, our understanding of what we learn is not only deepened but helps form a more secure bridge between the concrete and the abstract.
There are many studies, in fact, that show the importance of handwriting to enhanced learning outcomes and these studies appear to show that when different senses are used together while learning a subject, the deeper the learning is, particularly when tactility or motor skills (or 'haptics') is included. As an example, one study has shown that when students learn a letter by tracing its visual form with their index finger while listening to the pronunciation of the letter, recall of that letter is faster and more accurate. So even tracing a letter with your finger may be better than using no finger at all!
In another study, students were instructed by having them trace worked examples in geometry and arithmetic (order of operations), while other students were simply introduced to visual examples which were read. The results showed that those who traced the worked examples performed better on later tests, which "suggest[s] that the enhancement of spatial cognition by gestures ... may extend learning even when signifiers are abstract symbols carrying little or no spatial meaning" (emphasis added).
"One important implication of these findings is that knowledge seems to be better assimilated and more readily retrieved when presented in paper format." Mangen (2013) p. 62.
But the benefits of handwriting go beyond even those attributable to tracing letters with fingers. Further studies have shown that the natural variations of the letters formed by children learning to write help them to categorize letters later on better than simply having them generate the same letter form using keyboard input or viewing it in an invariant form. Here perhaps is evidence of the nascent abstracting skills of children learning to generalize by forming robust concepts of the different letters of the alphabet. What is significant about these studies is that this ability to categorize accurately is not stimulated by students passively watching someone else form letters but by students actively forming the letters themselves. It is as if such children are forming a 3-dimensional object in their mind that can later be viewed from multiple angles, giving a clearer 'picture' of the object being thought.
Interestingly, another study found slightly different results which still supported handwriting over typing on a keyboard or tracing invariant forms with fingers. It found that when children were taught using variant forms of letters, whether the letters were self-produced or not (that is, some children simply saw variant letter shapes), they performed better than those who merely studied invariant forms, even if they traced invariant forms. This result is not all that surprising, however, given that letters produced by handwriting are almost always naturally variant, especially among younger students, since their fine motor writing skills are not fully developed. At any rate, the benefits of handwriting are not limited to just one causal factor, since there are many factors involved overall.
The mounting evidence from these studies suggests that handwriting provides crucial training and exposure to bodily and cognitive mechanisms that give it a clear advantage over newer learning technologies such as keyboards and touchscreens. Although the underlying mechanisms involved are not well understood (they appear to be quite complex), the evidence nevertheless continues to show both the short-term and long-term benefits of handwriting skills for later academic performance.
In line with the results of these handwriting studies are those which focus on reading and comprehension skills relating to different modes of presentation, namely, between information presented on paper in contrast to monitor screens. Even here it has been found that reading and comprehending information on paper produces test results which outperform those of students given the same information digitally on screens. In fact, one study's findings show that "students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally". This study from Norway had 72 tenth graders separated into two groups randomly — one group reading texts on paper up to 2000 words, the other group reading the same texts but in PDF format on monitor screens. The study concluded that "knowledge seems to be better assimilated and more readily retrieved when presented in paper format." Although the researchers could not identify exactly why students performed more poorly after reading on screens than on paper, the results are nevertheless clear and entirely consistent with other studies relating to the benefits of handwriting over typing on a keyboard or using a stylus on a touchscreen.
One prominent feature of the patent-pending Tetractys Number Puzzle is the Tetractys Puzzle Analysis Template, whose purpose is not only to help students visualize the rule of the puzzle so that they can think about the rule abstractly but also to encourage deeper learning of basic mathematical facts through having the student write out the four mathematical equations that are hidden within each puzzle grid. The laminated template is a tactile, interactive feature of the puzzle that takes advantage of the learning benefits of handwriting in order to help develop the fine motor writing skills that are associated with long-term academic success in advanced mathematical education. In addition, the printed puzzles along with their solutions, systematically organized under a unique Reference System, take advantage of the printed page format in order to facilitate better reading comprehension skills. Contrary to the expectations of many, these traditional methods of teaching incorporating handwriting together with printed materials still outperform newer digital technologies when it comes to learning outcomes. These digital technologies indeed have advantages in a classroom setting, but at present they do not include the benefit of deeper learning.
1. "Results indicate that performance on both fine motor writing and object manipulation tasks had significant effects on 2nd-grade reading and math achievement, as measured by grades and standardized test scores. Stronger effects were yielded for writing tasks compared to object manipulation tasks." Dinehart (2013), p. 138.
2. "A series of experiments by Bara and colleagues shows that when children explore letter shapes with their fingers (haptic exploration) it increases letter knowledge and as a consequence decoding skills." Mangen (2016), p. 103.
4. "Taken together, the results showed that incorporating the haptic exploration in exercises involving letter and letter/sound correspondences knowledge, combined with exercises involving phonemic awareness, increase the positive effects of this type of training on the understanding and use of the alphabetic principle in young children and thus on their decoding skills." Bara (2004), 446-447.
5. "This idea was supported by the findings that (a) both handwriting, and tracing, of handwritten symbols resulted in better categorization than tracing typed symbols; (b) that visual study of variable forms (both multiple typed fonts and handwritten symbols) also facilitated categorization to the same extent as handwriting and tracing handwriting; and (c) conversely, the only conditions that were significantly worse during categorization were those where the participants learned a single font-type of the symbols (single-font learning and tracing-typed)." Li (2016), 309.
7. Handwriting with a stylus on a touchscreen appears to decrease legibility, in contrast to writing with a pen on paper, due to the low-friction nature of both the stylus and the touchscreen surface. "Results from the second graders suggest that they had more difficulty calculating segment trajectories when they handwrote on the screen tablet surface with a plastic tip. By dramatically changing the propriokinesthetic information, the very low friction generated by the tablet/nylon tip combination forced these students to pause for longer between two segments. This extra time was probably needed to carefully analyze the previous segment, which had been formed using non-usual information, and to adjust the next one accordingly. Despite this processing, they produced larger and less legible letters." Alamargot (2015), 38.
Alamargot, Denis, & Morin, Marie-France (2015). Does handwriting on a tablet screen affect students’ graphomotor execution? A comparison between Grades Two and Nine. Human Movement Science, 44: 32-41.
Bara, F., Gentaz, E, Cole, P., Sprenger-Charolles, L. (2004). The visuo-haptic and haptic exploration of letters increases the kindergarten-children’s understanding of the alphabetic principle. Cognitive Development, 19, 433-449.
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Mangen, A., Anda, L.G., Oxborough, G.H., & Brønnick, K. (2015). Handwriting versus Keyboard Writing: Effect on Word Recall. Journal of Writing Research, 7(2), 227-247.
Mangen, A., Balsvik, L. (2016). Pen or keyboard in beginning writing instruction? Some perspectives from embodied cognition, Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Volume 5, Issue 3, Pages 99-106.
Mangen, Anne & Walgermo, Bente & Bronnick, Kolbjorn. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research. 58. 61-68.
Our finding that subjects had better free recall of the words that they had written by hand, compared to both the iPad touch keyboard and the laptop keyboard conditions, can be read as an indication of the importance of considering the embodied nature of writing and how different technologies might differently affect cognitive outcomes.