A Brief Look at Handwriting and the Brain

It’s no secret.  Many parents of gifted children see their children growing up to work in STEM related fields — research science, technology, computer science, and medicine are more sought after than nearly any other profession. Unless a gifted child strongly favors language and writing, parents often seek out advancement opportunities for math, science, and technology rather than reading and writing.  Today, many centers equate STEM programming with gifted programming, but those of us with gifted children know they are not the same.  Albeit, our gifted children may enjoy STEM, but STEM programming is not an exclusive “gifted” endeavor.

Out of the students that apply to my school, far and few enter my doors in search of language arts classes.  However, many unsuspecting parents leave my open houses inspired to work on their child’s writing skills after recognizing that writing skills are implicit in not only the professional world but day to day life.

Year after year, more and more students enter my doors with weaker written language skills.  For those verbally inclined students, the strength of their writing is often masked by tragic handwriting skills resulting from poorly developed hand muscles and motor skills.  While some may argue that handwriting is a dying art in the wake of a technology-driven era, handwriting practice is paramount to ensure writing and learning success. 


When we write by hand, our entire body is immersed in the writing process.  On a muscular level, we use over fifteen different muscles to write on paper.  These muscles include the: extensor carpi radialis longus, brevis, and ulnaris, extensior digitorum, indicis, digiti minimi, flexor digitorium superficialis and profundus, thenar muscles and adductor pollicis, hypothenar muscles, lumbricales, dorsal and palmar interossei.  ​


On a neurological level, the handwriting process activates a unique neural circuit that makes learning easier and stimulates creativity. 

When we write by hand, we feel the paper beneath our palms — the friction between our writing and instrument and our pallet of choice — the movement from our pinky finger to our back.  We smell the ink — the paper — the lead smeared pages — and eraser dust.  A keyboard, on the other hand, is a standardized and institutionalized tool that strips writing of its very essence.  Thus, it is no surprise that typing on a keyboard or tapping a touch screen do not elicit neural responses even remotely akin to those provoked by the handwriting process. 

A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University identified parts of the brain that control how people write words.  They studied 33 people who suffered spelling and writing impairments after suffering strokes.  They used fMRI scans to map each subject’s brain and found a clear division in the results from those with spelling issues related to short-term memory versus those with spelling issues related to long-term memory.  Individuals struggling with short-term memory (working memory) often remember the letters within a word, but they are unable to put them in the correct order.  Individuals struggling with long-term memory have difficulty remembering which letters a word contains.  Individuals with damage to either region were unable to spell words correctly, suggesting that separate regions of the cortex must work together to perform writing and spelling related tasks. 

Studies conducted by James and Englehardt in 2012 studied the neural response of five-year-old children when handwriting, typing, and reading.  The results suggest that letter perception is distinctly different when forming letters by hand than when typing letters out.  James and Englehardt write, “These findings demonstrate that handwriting is important for the early recruitment in letter processing of brain regions known to underlie successful reading. Handwriting, therefore, may facilitate reading acquisition in young children.”  As a result, forgoing handwriting practice and lessons may indeed inhibit reading acquisition in children. 

Other studies, such as one conducted at Indiana State University, suggest that writing by hand increases neural activity in sections of the brain in ways akin to meditation. This may indeed be why journaling is such an effective therapeutic tool. Writing by hand forces us to slow down and immerse ourselves in the task at hand.  This may be an especially difficult task for our gifted children who often struggle to keep up with the pace of their thoughts, but this skill and patience is invaluable in the learning process.

Children who struggle with spelling and composition are often hindered by their handwriting abilities because too much energy is consumed by the handwriting process itself.  Handwriting is an all-consuming task for our mind and body, but total engagement in writing provokes deep thought, creative exploits, and a beautiful manipulation of language.

Forming letters by hand requires time, patience, and instruction.  The process engages the mind, improves executive functioning, and forces children to pay more attention to written language.  While students often write more when permitted to use word processing software, the quality often suffers.  Students unwittingly assume that artificial intelligent agents correctly edit and revise their work, but this is far from the truth.  Auto-correct software’s are programmed to identify mechanical errors in writing based on a series of algorithms and, as such, cannot possibly take into account the author’s intent.  Until students can write, revise, and edit their written work independently, word processing software serves as a crutch without leaving room for individual growth on both a mechanical and a creative level.

Students in my language arts classes write their work by hand for the overwhelming majority of the year.  Each year, students earn the opportunity to type assignments based on demonstrated writing abilities.  Upon demonstrating grade-level writing and revising skills, I encourage students to type the final copy of some assignments only after they’ve unleashed their creativity through hand written pre-writing exercises.  This balance allows students to reap the benefits of handwriting whilst still producing a professional looking final product that students take pride in.  




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