Writing By Hand May Help Children Learn to Read

young girl using a pencil

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Key Takeaways

  • When learning new letters, writing by hand leads to quicker proficiency.
  • Writing by hand allows individuals to combine all of the information learned about a letter in a way that’s beneficial.
  • Despite the explosion of digital learning, handwriting is still important.

Reading and writing are essential to learning. In fact, a new study now shows that writing by hand may help kids learn and understand letters faster. It also may help kids learn to read more quickly.

Published in Psychological Science, the study found that handwriting allowed participants to incorporate several components of new letters they learned, helping them to potentially process the information more proficiently.

About the Study

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University studied 42 young adults from the university and the local community. The adults, ranging from their late teens to early 30s, were taught letters in Arabic during six sessions.

The participants were split into three different learning groups: a handwriting group, a group that watched videos, and a group that typed responses. Each group was then introduced to the Arabic letters in the same way. They first saw it visually created; then they heard the name of the letter and the sound the letter makes.

Each group then had to reproduce the letter in different ways. Those in the handwriting group wrote the letter they learned with pen and paper. The video group saw the letter on the screen and had to identify it. And the group with typed responses had to locate the letter on a keyboard.

The individuals in the handwriting group learned the information more quickly and showed a higher level of mastery than the other groups—some in only two sessions. While the test was performed on adults, researchers believe the results can correlate to children’s ability to learn letters, identify them, and perhaps read earlier.

Implications of the Study

When children begin learning their letters and learning how to read, they start processing the information for the first time. In the same way, the study participants were unfamiliar with the Arabic language.

In fact, researchers picked Arabic letters because they are very different than Roman letters. The study results also can correlate to children because the outcomes are in line with similar findings.

“There’s some overlap between our study and previous studies that have been done with children. And where they overlap, we find the same results that have been found with children. That's why we’re pretty confident that our results will apply to children,” says Brenda Rapp, PhD, a professor in the department of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University and a coauthor of the study.

For instance, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that when children write by hand, they learn and retain information better. This latest study supports these previous findings, which is another reason the results can translate to children in the reading environment.

Importance of Writing By Hand

Children learn using all four of the learning styles, whether auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, or visual. The benefit of using handwriting with these learning methods is that it brings the methods of learning information together in a way that strengthens understanding.

Robert Wiley, PhD

What the writing really helps you do is associate all these different things you’re learning. It helps you connect what it looks like, with what it sounds like, with how you draw it. It really is like a hub or a lynchpin between all these different ideas.

— Robert Wiley, PhD

"What the writing really helps you do is associate all these different things you’re learning. It helps you connect what it looks like, with what it sounds like, with how you draw it. It really is like a hub or a lynchpin between all these different ideas,” states Robert Wiley, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at UNC Greensboro and lead author of the study.

Dr. Wiley notes that writing is not necessary to learn to read. But the ability to connect everything being learned about the letters can be beneficial as children become readers. And handwriting can play a part.

“There are people who can’t write by hand because of physical disabilities. They can still learn to read. So, it’s not like it’s necessary, but there is really strong evidence—including our paper—that [handwriting] is beneficial. You may learn faster; you may learn deeper, and more quickly,”
he notes.

Handwriting vs. Digital Learning

Computers and digital learning are here to stay. They are both beneficial mechanisms for children. But the key is to use them to enhance the educational experience and not to replace handwriting.

Brenda Rapp, PhD

We should stick with some form of written practice...that’s what the evidence really shows.

— Brenda Rapp, PhD

“The lesson for parents and educators is to not overvalue the application of technology, and not automatically assume that since all communication is done digitally—we write emails and not by hand—that writing by hand doesn’t matter anymore,” Dr. Wiley states.

In fact, both experts agree that writing is a part of the curriculum that should be here to stay.

“We should stick with some form of written practice...that’s what the evidence really shows,” Dr. Rapp concludes.

What This Means For You

Learning by typing on a computer can seem easier or quicker. But this study shows that when it comes to learning new letters, writing by hand is hugely beneficial. Give your children the chance to exercise their motor skills, and present them with opportunities to write. Doing so will help them grasp the material more quickly and may even benefit their reading skills.

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  1. Wiley RW, Rapp B. The effects of handwriting experience on literacy learning. Psychol Sci. Published online June 29, 2021. doi:10.1177/0956797621993111

  2. Ose Askvik E, van der Weel FR, van der Meer ALH. The importance of cursive handwriting over typewriting for learning in the classroom: a high-density EEG study of 12-year-old children and young adults. Front Psychol. 2020;11:1810. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01810