Home Education The Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting Over Typing: Enhancing Thinking and Learning

The Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting Over Typing: Enhancing Thinking and Learning


In today’s digital age, the art of writing by hand seems to be fading away for many technologically adept individuals.

The traditional method of carefully crafting our thoughts, one stroke at a time, on paper is gradually becoming obsolete in a world dominated by screens, where handwritten letters and sticky notes have been replaced by text messages and digital to-do lists. The efficiency of electronic keyboards has undoubtedly improved productivity, sparing us the laborious task of manually writing emails and other documents.

To keep pace with the digital era, schools are integrating computers into classrooms as early as preschool, meaning that some children may become familiar with typing before they fully develop their handwriting skills.

However, relinquishing this slower, more tactile mode of self-expression may come with significant drawbacks, as evidenced by a growing body of research revealing the unexpected cognitive advantages of using pen and paper, or even a stylus on a tablet, for both children and adults.

Studies on children demonstrate that tracing out letters by hand, rather than typing them, enhances letter recognition and understanding, leading to more robust and enduring literacy skills. Similarly, handwriting improves memory and recall of words, laying a solid foundation for learning and literacy development. Among adults, taking handwritten notes during lectures, as opposed to typing, fosters better comprehension of the material.

“There are significant cognitive benefits associated with the physical act of writing by hand,” explains Ramesh Balasubramaniam, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Merced. “It engages important cognitive processes.”

While many have long recognized these benefits (notably, many authors, such as Jennifer Egan and Neil Gaiman, prefer drafting their stories by hand to stimulate creativity), scientists have only recently begun delving into the underlying reasons behind the cognitive advantages of handwriting.

Recent brain imaging studies suggest that the potency of handwriting stems from the complexity of the process and its ability to engage various brain systems in coordinating the reproduction of letter shapes from mental images onto paper.

Your brain on handwriting

Both handwriting and typing involve hand movements to create words, but handwriting requires more intricate coordination between motor and visual systems. This engages the brain more deeply, supporting learning. Gripping a pen requires monitoring finger pressure for each letter, a complex task. Visual processing compares forming letters with mental models, adjusting fingers in real-time. Typing, in contrast, involves simpler finger movements without forming letter shapes. Recent brain studies show that handwriting syncs motor and visual processing with memory areas, promoting learning. Experts suggest that handwriting’s physical engagement aids learning and concept association, crucial for both children and adults. They caution against abandoning handwriting, fearing it may impact learning and cognitive processes.

What might be lost as handwriting wanes

The shift from pen and paper to screens and keyboards may have a profound impact on children’s ability to grasp the fundamentals of literacy, particularly letters.

According to Vinci-Booher, early letter recognition is a strong predictor of future success in reading and math. Learning to write letters by hand is crucial for later reading comprehension. When children write letters, each attempt is unique and messy, fostering a deeper understanding of the letter’s concept.

Research indicates that exposure to varied handwritten examples aids letter recognition more than uniform typed examples, promoting brain development crucial for reading. Skipping handwriting instruction risks hindering these skills, potentially impairing learning in the future.

Mandating cursive instruction in many states, like California, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, aims to mitigate these risks. Evidence suggests that it’s the act of writing by hand, whether print or cursive, that holds educational value.

Slowing down and processing information

Writing by hand compels adults to slow down, fostering deeper processing of information compared to typing. In meetings or lectures, typing verbatim may lead to passive recording without comprehension. Handwriting limitations require selective noting of key points, encouraging personalization of information with drawings or annotations. This active engagement enhances retention.

While typing offers efficiency, handwritten notes facilitate cognitive integration. Although concerns arise regarding the delegation of cognitive tasks to digital devices, researchers find potential in digital handwriting tools. Using a stylus on a screen activates similar brain pathways as traditional handwriting. Thus, it’s the act of movement that stimulates cognition, irrespective of the medium. Balasubramaniam emphasizes that embracing digital tools doesn’t negate the benefits of handwriting, suggesting that both methods contribute to optimal cognitive function.