UW News

December 23, 2014

UW prof: Handwriting engages the mind

News and Information

High-tech companies are seeking to capitalize on the power of handwriting, but there are other reasons to value the practice, says UW educational psychology professor Virginia Berninger.

“Writing is the way we learn what we’re thinking,” said Berninger, who studies the effect of handwriting on the human brain. “The handwriting, the sequencing of the strokes, engages the thinking part of the mind.”

Berninger was recently interviewed for a CBS This Morning story about how tech companies are reviving the art of handwriting in a digital age. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 tablet allows users to write with a digital pen, and Austin, Texas-based year-old startup MailLift uses both human and robot handwriters to produce handwritten letters for clients.

The value of handwriting has been a topic of some debate in academic circles. The Common Core standards adopted in most states call for teaching children legible handwriting in kindergarten and first grade only, after which the focus is on keyboarding skills.

But several states, including California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and South Carolina, have recently moved to make cursive instruction mandatory. Some psychologists, neuroscientists and researchers including Berninger say there’s an important connection between handwriting and learning. Children taught to write learn to read earlier, generate ideas more easily and have a better ability to retain information, they say.

In a five-year study of Seattle children in grades one through five, Berninger found that printing, cursive writing and using a keyboard each use related but different brain functions — underscoring that writing is a complex undertaking that draws on many neurological processes.

“Handwriting requires the production of a letter form, stroke by stroke,” Berninger said in the CBS interview. “The act of producing something supports perception. So we need to output in order to improve our ability to process what we input from the environment.”