Why The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard

By Megan Patiry on February 13, 2014

One of the math whizzes in our high school algebra class, Johnny B., was a maniac. Frequently the subject of intense student observation, he would mutter to himself at such a pace one couldn’t begin to understand the language, all while writing at a speed resembling the frantic gallop of a thoroughbred trapped in a pen. I tried to ignore him as best as I could, seeing as I genuinely liked our teacher and felt bad that he didn’t get the attention during class he deserved, but I’ll admit Johnny’s scribbling was a welcome distraction from math.

Johnny always had his revenge on the laughing, staring class at the end of every week, however, when test grades were revealed. He was consistently in the top percentile; and to put that into perspective, the kid demanded a retest if he scored below a 98 percent. Everyone shrugged off his high scores, saying Johnny probably did nothing but study, but since my math skills were lacking, I decided to ask him for his secret.

He told me he never studied outside of class, but simply copied down his notes twice.

From that day forward, I was Johnny’s scribbler sidekick from across the room; and now, across state lines. While everyone in class is typing away on laptops and tablets, I’m writing furiously in my notebook, feeling like a caveman wielding an archaic pick and chisel. The results from doing this, however, have made a huge positive impact on my grades since that very first day. All muttering aside (it tends to lead to staring), it seems the concept of old-fashioned longhand has its place in a society ruled by technology.

 Writing longhand helps you learn more effectively

Photo by jaypacres via Flickr.

Researchers in the 1970s began delving into the act of writing and the affect it has on the brain. During a study involving children and their memorization of abstract shapes, they found that the children who retraced the shapes with their fingers memorized them more efficiently than the children who just looked at the shapes. There have been several more studies since that time that highlight the link between writing by hand and better memorization and learning, such as the study conducted by researchers Anne Mangen, of the University of Stavanger in Norway, and Jean-Luc Velay, a French neuroscientist, which show that “learning letters in an unfamiliar alphabet by hand rather than typing may lead to longer-term memories,” and “suggest that handwriting has unique cognitive properties that help to shape how children learn to read and write.”

The study also suggests that the act of holding a pencil and shaping words connects with the motor area of the brain, creating a “motor memory,” and “making it easier to recall the information connected by the movement.”

The fact that Johnny B. was copying down his notes twice was, in fact, instilling a motor memory into his brain, so he was more likely than the rest of us who just stared at the chalkboard to remember the steps to solving the problems on our tests. Once I began mimicking this, I didn’t become a whiz of any sort, but my test scores did improve, and I did feel a mental focus I had been lacking before I started writing down each step in the problems. John Paul Titlow, technology journalist in Philadelphia, speaks on this phenomenon via Readwrite.

“I’ve long noticed that when I’m writing in a paper journal, it mentally feels different than when I’m typing out my thoughts on a computer,” he said.

Technology versus pen and paper

The advent of technology has certainly made the process of writing by hand a lengthy one, as it is much quicker and more efficient to tap a few keys than to engage in shaping letters. However, Velay, the French neuroscientist in the above study, mentions that writing is essentially what has created technology.

Citing studies by Jay David Bolter, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Walter J. Ong, professor of English literature, she writes, “From using clay tablets and animal skins via the medieval manuscript and the ancient papyrus roll, to the mechanization of writing with the printing press and the current digitization, writers have always had to handle physical devices and then apply these to some substrate.”

It would be foolish of us as a civilization to not fully realize the effects writing has on not only our children’s development, but our development as adults and our journey through college. As more and more technology is involved in our learning process, the less writing we’re engaging in.

For example, the law in Illinois does not require handwriting training and leaves it up to the districts to decide how it will be taught. Athough Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said most of their schools take the time to teach longform, she also said that there has been a heightened focus on typing skills.

Developmental and learning benefits aside, writing also increases productivity and focus, whereas typing and being “plugged in” can prove to be immensely distracting. As Chris Gayomali for Mental Floss wrote, “The computer in front of you is a time-sucking portal to puppy videos and ex-boyfriend/girlfriend stalking.”

Typing and doing work on a computer indeed offers plentiful ways to distract yourself and procrastinate, whereas a pen and paper only allow doodling as the biggest distraction.

Leveling the writing field

There are many apps that attempt to mimic the art of handwriting, such as Penultimate and iTrace, but many question this attempt. The whole idea behind writing is to form the connection between the brain and the motor skills of the hand, and while tracing letters on an iPhone may be better than simply tapping keys, its effect isn’t the same.

Wendy Carlson, a handwriting expert and forensic document examiner, said in an interview that “if you are typing or texting, it’s a matter of punching and finger-moving.”

“You are doing very little thinking because you are not allowing your brain to form neural processes,” she said.

While the advent of these various apps is a great attempt to bring handwriting and technology together, there is still more research to be done in order to discern whether, say, Johnny B., would have received the same benefits by writing with an app on his iPhone than actually writing with a pen and paper.

Writing may be deemed inefficient or even obsolete in the years to come, but with 33 percent of individuals having difficulty reading their own handwriting, I think it’s safe to say it’s an area that should be of great concern. With our laptops, tablets and smartphones, many of us may scoff at the romantic notion of handwriting, labeling it an ancient and crazy pastime.

Just remember, while students were scoffing at crazy Johnny B., he was scribbling to the top of his class.

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