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Handwriting, Typing, or Video Watching: Which is Better in Literacy Learning?

By: Inas Essa

As technological advances conquer our lives, many traditional practices retreat to the background regardless of their importance. Handwriting is an example of such practices that have been neglected and is being replaced by typing, at work and in schools. The issue has prompted a question about the real effect of handwriting on literacy and beyond.

A new research from Johns Hopkins University, USA, that has been published in the Psychological Science journal investigated how the process of handwriting could be helpful in learning a new language, compared to typing or watching videos. The results have shown that handwriting helps learn certain skills faster and significantly better than learning the same material in other ways.

Researchers indicate that the reason lies in the ability of writing by hand in reinforcing both aural and visual learning. This results in providing a perceptual-motor experience that unifies what is being learned about the letters, which although they appear to be very simple objects, are surprisingly complex and rich.


Why Should We Spend Time Doing Handwriting?

Previous research indicates that writing practice may be more beneficial than nonmotor practice, like watching videos, for letter learning. It is not all about penmanship acquisition, the greater attention, or more time on a task for handwriting vs. nonmotor conditions; it is about the significant implications and skills resulting from the act of handwriting, such as letter recognition, categorization, and retention.

To investigate more about the significant role of handwriting, researchers of the recent study conducted an experiment in which 42 people were taught the Arabic alphabet. The participants were split into three groups of learners: writers, typers, and video watchers.

Everyone learned the letters one at a time by watching videos of them being written along with hearing names and sounds. Then, the video watchers group was asked to say the letter that would appear as a flash on-screen, the typers group to find the letter on the keyboard, and the writing group to write it on a piece of paper. Although participants could recognize the letters and made few mistakes when tested, the group that reached this level of proficiency faster than the others was the writing group.

After that, researchers took the experiment to the next level at which they could determine to what extent participants could use the letters they had just learned in spelling new words and using them to read unfamiliar ones. Surprisingly, the writing group was better in all of those things and ended up with the skills needed for expert adult-level in reading and spelling.

“The main lesson is that even though they were all good at recognizing letters, the writing training was the best at every other measure; and they required less time to get there,” said lead author Robert Wiley, a former Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. student who is now a professor at the University of North Carolina. He added: “with writing, you are getting a stronger representation in your mind that lets you scaffold toward these other types of tasks that do not in any way involve handwriting”.


Good News for Adults and Children

Although the participants in the study were adults, the researchers expect they would see the same results in children as the findings have implications for classrooms. The findings also suggest that adults trying to learn a language with a different alphabet should add pen and paper to whatever method they are learning through.