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Pencils and Brainwaves An Analysis on Handwriting and Memory

This week we reached out to our Director of Elementary Development, Freddie Kendrick – you may remember reading about her efforts to transform elementary teaching – and she provided us with a wealth of insight into the benefits of handwriting. There’s a lot more to writing things out than initially meets the eye, but we’ll let Freddie explain it herself:
[Freddie] Despite the fact that more and more people are communicating through text, and even though technology is making an increasingly significant impact on our classrooms, handwriting is an invaluable skill to teach and master. In fact, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) actually include standards for legible manuscript writing in kindergarten and first grade. However, there is no mention of it elsewhere in the other grade levels that I have found, and this is a travesty that should be reversed.
Current research shows an important relationship between writing by hand and learning. For example, in a Wall Street Journal article, Gwendolyn Bounds linked brain scans and behavioral testing together and found that participants who wrote out new letterforms instead of using a keyboard to type them out actually had increased brain activity. In the article, titled “How Handwriting Trains the Brain,” Bounds elaborates on this finding and discusses how information written by hand stimulates the brain and increases the retention of that written information.
Handwriting is much more than learning how to use a pencil. It is a tool with which our students can hone some of the most critical learning skills, skills that they will be using for the rest of their lives! In the book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen – a professional colleague of mine – writes that excessive stress and threat in the school environment may be the single greatest contributor to impaired academic learning. A multi-sensory handwriting program relaxes the emotional brain to reduce stress levels in students and improve learning. I also asked him for a little more insight into his thoughts on handwriting, and he provided me with an excellent quote:
“Two generations ago, 95% of people in America used handwriting. Today, most use keyboarding. Yet the skills of handwriting remain important. They are memory, focus, prediction, attention, sequencing, estimation, patience and creativity.”
Another advocate of handwriting development and writing to learn is renowned neurologist, Dr. Judy Willis, who is now serving as a classroom teacher. In her blog, The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning (Part 2 of 7), she cites observational research that supports the act of handwriting as a means to enhance the learning process. “The practice of writing,” she says, “can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information. Through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, unfamiliar concepts, and subject-specific vocabulary.”
Dr. Willis informs us that, “When writing is embedded throughout the curriculum, it promotes the brain's attentive focus to classwork and homework, boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain's highest cognition.”
Therefore, it seems if the research confirms that the cognitive process of writing by hand improves the child’s ability to retain, retrieve, and comprehend information, then we need to enable our students to be fluent in the skill of handwriting. Too many students struggle with writing things out by hand, to the point where the act of writing actually slows them down and impedes their thought processes related to concept development. This needs to change, and there are two ways we can do so.
First, we can help our students learn to write, and learn to write well. Second, we must integrate handwriting as a part the Common Core State Standards. We need to specifically teach the vital skill of handwriting along with concepts that the children are interested in learning; doing so will set the foundation for spreading the skill across all subject areas. If we can incorporate art and music into the mix as well, then we will have a beautiful portrait of the brain in motion.
The Common Core State Standards do not dictate how or even when classroom teachers should “teach” handwriting, but knowing that research supports the act of writing by hand, we as educators should understand the need to embrace giving ample time to the development of this invaluable skill in the early grades.
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