Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No Brainer: Handwriting Trains the Brain By Creating Multiple Memory Paths

Tuesday's Wall Street "Personal" Journal (October 5, 2010 page D1) headline article ("How Handwriting Trains the Brain"  by Gwendolyn Bounds) relates that writing by hand engages the brain in learning.  What she does not address is how.

How Handwriting Engages the Brain:  When writing by hand (with pen on paper or finger on an ipad), you are using more muscles and more memory pathways than when typing or keyboarding. As I wrote last week, writing involves many different brain activities and brain regions.  It involves memory (remembering letters, words, and ideas), attention (making sure you are writing what you want to write, in the right format, spelling and grammar), sequencing (making sure letter, words thoughts are expressed and written in the proper order), cognition (making sure you are addressing what you want to address, and generating and synthesizing original thoughts). 

Writing by hand provides additional brain channels and associations that trigger memory and cognition.    Picture a file cabinet with a lot of cross-filing!  By hand writing, your brain is involving more centers and more skills.  There are more ways your brain is recognizing, associating, processing and storing the information.

The good news:
  • New software for touch screen devices enables old and young to practice handwriting on the screen.  Hence practicing handwriting is a lot more fun.
  • Lower Schools still focus on handwriting.
  • Upper schools - I never thought I'd say this but there may be a silver lining to the SAT's as they require a handwritten essay.  Many high schools and SAT tutoring services address this. Your child is practicing not only handwriting skills (so graders can actually decipher the gist of the essay), they are working on developing and maintaining  multiple cognitive and memory pathways. 

Boosting the skills, without the traditional drills:
  • No matter how old your child is, provide handwriting opportunities.  Creating/writing birthday, anniversary, thank you cards, invitations, are easy ways to do this.  Your kids can draw, write, create messages, pop-up art while communicating a message.
  • For middle and upper school kids - encourage taking/making study notes, summary sheets.  The actual re-writing of the essential material is another way to involve and create memory and recall paths.
  • Leave notes for each other at home.  Have a message center -maybe the refrigerator, a box on the kitchen counter.  Leave notes for the Tooth Fairy and Santa.  Write chalk messages in your driveway.
  • Get in the habit of making checklists.  Write checklists for shopping, for remembering how to form an essay, for how to do long division, how to reboot the wireless router... (you get the idea).
  • Create and write up favorite recipes. 
In case you want more structured, directed handwriting drills, here are some iPad and iPhone software products Gwendolyn Bounds suggests in her article:
  • "WritePad" - a $3.99 application for the iPhone that accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus and then converts it to text (for email, documents, or Twitter updates).
  • "abc PocketPhonics" - a $1.99 app (again for the iPhone) that instructs kids how to draw letters with their fingers or stylus.  Cheering pencils appear with correct movements.

Maybe you have other suggestions.  I know we'd all like to read them, so please leave suggestions, further questions or comments! 


  1. This is really interesting to me. I was ready to accept that handwriting is becoming a lost art - teachers in our public school stopped stressing the importance of handwriting in the years between my two boys, ages 18 and 11. Now in the upper elementary level the teacher are fine with typewritten work; the kids spend time in the computer lab working on keyboarding skills but don't do anything with cursive at all. The younger one doesn't really even know how to read cursive - and these are very high-achieving kids. Thanks!

  2. I have a writing instructor that tells everyone to try journaling with their non-dominant hand. The theory is that by using the opposite hand, you are utilizing more of the opposite side of your brain than usual and it's pretty amazing what comes out (if you're not terribly concerned about the legibility). Try it!

  3. While I think this is an interesting theory, I believe there are exceptions (two in my house). When I was a student, I found writing by hand arduous, so I took cryptic notes. The only way I could actually learn that material was to retype it, using complete sentences. Recopying by hand didn't work for me, as I spent more brain cells on creating the perfect document than on absorbing the materials. It was the process of typing and seeing the material appear on the page (later screen) that hammered it into my head.

    My son, who was born at 24 weeks, has extremely poor graphomotor skills. He is 18 now, but as early as fifth grade, he described it like this: "I can't think and write at the same time." He has benefitted greatly from technology such as Dragon Naturally Speaking (which bypasses even typing by using voice recognition) and various iPhone apps (see how he uses his iPhone here — http://2kop.blogspot.com/2009/12/iphones-new-help-for-special-needs-kids.html).

    While I'm not disputing your evidence or even your pro-handwriting argument, I do believe there are exceptions. Thanks for your provocative post. And by the way, I do make my other three kids handwrite their thank you notes.

  4. Susan, thank you so much for your comments. I am so glad you left your comment.

    Disgraphic kids require stronger attention skills because they must more closely monitor muscular control as well as monitor whether what they wrote is legible. For them, writing notes to study IS NOT the answer, and keyboarding options are the way to go. Auditory and visual strategies may help them more with memory.

    We all have very different strengths and weaknesses in attention, memory , cognition, and motor control. That is part of what makes education so challenging.

    Thank you again for commenting.

  5. You are so right. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I try to teach all my children that success comes when we learn to harness our strengths to compensate for and overcome our weaknesses. This is a distinctly different way of thinking about ability versus disability.

    My son is now taking a few courses at a community college. They are incredibly accommodating, especially in terms of using technology. I recently wrote about this on The Chicago Moms. The beginning of the post is about his twin sisters college choice, but the end is about our experience with the community college. You may be interested in that post, as well:


  6. Thank you for your comments on my blog about diverse student profiles. That is what all my work is about: Understanding your child's learning profile and learning how to enrich and enhance their strengths, while boosting their weaknesses. Please come visit and comment again!

    I went to you blog - GREAT POST. I agree that college is a match to be made (my third child, is a "first year" at UChicago - if you're in Chicago, we should meet). It is all about the match and I have a great story all about it:

    College night at my daughter's high school. The college counselor was asking a panel of admissions officers a list of canned questions. One was, "What is more important to you, to see students who have taken challenging courses but got B's or easier courses and got A's" All but one said a variation of "Challenging courses with A's". Until the last one who paused, took a look around the auditorium and said, "You all look so nervous. Just don't worry. It just works out. You will find the right match, and trust me, it will work."

    For my kids it has, I hope it works for yours too.

    Thank you for your comments on my blog about diverse student profiles. That is what all my work is about: Understanding your child's learning profile and learning how to enrich and enhance their strengths, while boosting their weaknesses. Please come visit and comment again!

  7. I've been off on a writing jag so have been remiss in blog-visiting. But today I read She Writer Meryl Jaffe's Departing the Text. The post - about how handwriting engages the brain - is about a subject I'm very interested in in part because my son is disgraphic. It's REALLY smartly written. AND just going to this blog will cheer you up - it's so colorful! Makes me wonder about my own understated blog decor. Time for a remodel?

  8. Handwriting does help and it's the key to Learning. It develops a person's memory and come up with great ideas as well. Those were great tips to encourage a child and engage him/her into handwriting.

  9. Meryl,
    I came to this post via mention in the She Writes thread about "What Blog Did you Visit Today." I found this particular post fascinating on many fronts. I'm a retired college English Instructor and truly believe in engaging thought with pen and pencil, so a quick 5 minute free write was the way I started EVERY class.

    I have 14 grandkids, 12 of whom are homeschooled and one of whom is dyslexic and dysgraphic. While he has been trained in Dragon Speaking Naturally, he consistently writes with pencil and paper-- poems, stories, cryptic notes, and plays. He can read all of his own stuff even if we can't, and he is quite patient about reading anything we can't decipher.

    Finally, I'd like to mention a product to add to your list. I co-write a blog for an inventor who developed a dry erase paddle that is ideal for many of the things you suggest in this post. Here is the link to KleenSlate Concepts http://www.kleenslate.com/index.html
    Check out the products and the blog. The paddle and the erasers definitely promote active writing and active learning. I intend to write a blog there that links to this post.

  10. Dear Twilightme,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I will be following up with another blog entry on dysgraphia, and at a later time on dyslexia and will most definitely include your information. I also thank you for linking to me from your blog post. I would love to thank you personally. Please leave me a note on my She Writes profile if you have a minute.

  11. Meryl-
    This is an incredibly fascinating topic. Intuitively (and as an artist) I have always felt that there was important cognitive development connected with handwriting.

    Is there any literature about the role of drawing in this development as well? Personally and anecdotally I am convinced that learning to draw is connected to writng, reading, and cognitive growth. Have there been any studies? I seem to recall one that connected contour drawing with better reading but have not been able to locate it.

    Thanks and BTW, your comment on my site was "spammed" which was why it didn't print. This has been corrected. I appreciated your comments.

    Nexus http://connectere.wordpress.com

  12. As a fiction writer, there is something about holding a pen/pencil and writing strokes on paper for me. The words flow easier and I spend more time actually telling my story. With a keyboard, I find myself backspacing a lot and there are a lot of starts and stops.

    I am no Ph.D but I concur that my brain works better handwriting. :)

  13. Hi Jan. While handwriting is considered a graphomotor skill, drawing is considered a fine motor skill. They are actually not related, which is good news for dysgraphics. There are some intervention and study strategies that encourage dysgraphics to draw summaries/notes when applicable to help with memory (and I mention this in my current blog entry). I will look up studies relating reading and drawing and get back to you. Thank you for your comments.

  14. I helped write a patent for something called ErgoScript and companion ErgoText (Google) - which relates to this thread: it is truly ergonomic in that it requires fewer muscles and allows the pen grip to be relaxed. Over time, this improves the quality of the writing. It is also easier and faster to read (provides a kind of '3-D' word shape recognition ability) without speed reading - almost impossible to loose your place (line skip) or misread a word (back step). BUT THE IMPORTANT part is that is is also heuristic in that it amplifies learning through dramatic improvement in comprehension and retention - specifically activating both left- and right- brain hemispheres. Normal reading employs only the left in most people. Moreover, for these same reasons (in total), it is a remarkable memory aid quite useful in rote memorization or casual recall. On top of all of this, it is even 20% more efficient in space and as result, can save trees (Google CyberScribe Project). HOW? By NOT 'staying between the line,' so to speak. You have to see it to understand that remark.