Handwriting Beats Typing and Watching Videos for Learning to Read

Though writing by hand is increasingly being eclipsed by the ease of computers, a new study finds we shouldn’t be so quick to throw away the pencils and paper: handwriting helps people learn certain skills surprisingly faster and significantly better than learning the same material through typing or watching videos.

“The question out there for parents and educators is why should our kids spend any time doing handwriting,” says senior author Brenda Rapp, a Johns Hopkins University professor of cognitive science. “Obviously, you’re going to be a better hand-writer if you practice it. But since people are handwriting less then maybe who cares? The real question is: Are there other benefits to handwriting that have to do with reading and spelling and understanding? We find there most definitely are.”

The work appears in the journal Psychological Science.

Rapp and lead author Robert Wiley, a former Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. student who is now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, conducted an experiment in which 42 people were taught the Arabic alphabet, 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. After being introduced to each letter, the three groups would attempt to learn what they just saw and heard in different ways. The video group got an on-screen flash of a letter and had to say if it was the same letter they’d just seen. The typers would have to find the letter on the keyboard. The writers had to copy the letter with pen and paper.

At the end, after as many as six sessions, everyone could recognize the letters and made few mistakes when tested. But the writing group reached this level of proficiency faster than the other groups – a few of them in just two sessions.

Next the researchers wanted to determine to what extent, if at all, the groups could generalize this new knowledge. In other words, they could all recognize the letters, but could anyone really use them like a pro, by writing with them, using them to spell new words and using them to read unfamiliar words?

The writing group was better – decisively – in all of those things.

“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,” Wiley said.

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