Handwriting In Education: Past And Present

Handwriting has been an integral part of education for centuries. According to the Reading Rockets article,
The Importance of Teaching Handwriting, handwriting was first taught in American schools in the early 18th century as a way to teach character and moral development. As public education expanded in the 19th century, so did handwriting instruction. For over 200 years, handwriting was seen as crucial for developing reading, writing, and cognitive skills.

In recent decades, however, the importance of teaching handwriting has been debated. With the rise of computers, tablets, and other digital technologies, some argue that handwriting instruction is no longer essential. Others counter that handwriting activates important developmental, cognitive, and motor skills that typing does not. While many schools still teach handwriting, how much time is devoted to it and the methods used vary greatly. This ongoing debate underlies the changing role of handwriting in modern education.

Cognitive Benefits of Handwriting

Research shows that handwriting activates more regions in the brain compared to typing on a keyboard. A 2012 study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that handwriting engages regions of the brain involved with thinking, language, and working memory more deeply than typing [1]. The added sensory input and connection with paper when writing by hand may provide broader cognitive benefits.

Handwriting also improves letter recognition and shapes. The motor experience of shaping letters by hand supports the visual recognition of letters and symbols. Preschool children who practiced printing letters showed stronger letter knowledge and early reading skills compared to those who just looked at letters [2]. Handwriting helps reinforce the connection between the shapes of letters and their sounds.

Several studies link handwriting experience to improved literacy outcomes. Students with good handwriting tend to develop stronger reading and writing skills early on. The benefits of handwriting may stem from the link between hand movements and the reading/writing sections of the brain [3]. Handwriting practice supports essential literacy skills in young students.

Motor Skills Development

Handwriting helps build fine motor skills and dexterity in children. The precise finger and hand movements required for writing letters and words develop fine motor coordination over time. According to GriffinOT, well-developed gross and fine motor skills are essential for children to succeed at handwriting.

The fine motor skills involved in grasping a pencil and controlling movements to form letters contribute to overall hand-eye coordination and dexterity. As noted by the NHS, fine motor skills enable activities like using writing instruments, scissors, and building with blocks which all help develop the smaller muscles of the hands. With practice writing letters and words, children can gain greater control and fluency of fine motor skills.

Memory Retention

Handwriting has been shown to improve memory retention and recall compared to typing. According to a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer, students who took notes by hand performed better on conceptual questions than those who typed notes, likely because handwriting allows more processing and learning as you write (Source 1). Another study found greater brain activation and connectivity for students who wrote by hand compared to typing, suggesting handwriting leads to more encoding of information in memory (Source 2). Additionally, research indicates writing words by hand leads to better memorization than typing, with the specific movements involved in handwriting contributing to improved learning (Source 3). Overall, the research demonstrates that handwriting allows faster processing and more effective encoding into memory compared to typing.

Attention and Focus

Handwriting improves children’s focus and attention span more than typing according to research. Studies show that handwriting leads to increased brain activity in areas associated with thinking, language, and working memory compared to typing1. The process of handwriting is slower and more deliberate than typing, preventing distraction and promoting concentration. Handwriting provides fewer external distractions for kids than a device with internet access and notifications. The extra focus required to form letters leads to stronger memorization as well. Children are better able to pay attention to educational concepts and retain information when they write it down by hand.

Writing Fluency

Handwriting practice can lead to increased writing fluency. Multiple studies have found that students who handwrite are able to generate more ideas and have increased sentence construction skills compared to typing. This is likely because handwriting is typically slower than typing, so students have more time to think and develop their ideas as they write. According to research by López-Escribano et al. (2022), handwriting fluency and spelling contribute significantly to both writing quality and productivity. The researchers recommend promoting handwriting fluency in preschool to support early writing skills.

Shanahan (2022) suggests teaching handwriting and spelling explicitly, but lowering the emphasis on mechanics during drafting stages to support writing fluency. Allowing students to handwrite drafts without worrying excessively about perfect spelling and handwriting can help ideas flow more freely. Skar et al.’s (2021) study of primary grade students found handwriting fluency accounted for a statistically significant amount of variance in writing quality, further demonstrating this link.


López-Escribano, C., Sánchez-Hípola, P., León, J. A., & Aguilar, M. (2022). Promoting Handwriting Fluency for Preschool and Primary School Children: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.841573

Shanahan, S. (2022, January 8). How to Teach Writing Fluency. Shanahan on Literacy. https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/how-to-teach-writing-fluency

Skar, G. B., Kim, Y.-S., Weidemann, W., & Feyzi-Behnagh, R. (2021). Handwriting fluency and the quality of primary grade students’ narrative and expository writing. Reading and Writing, 34(5), 1253–1282. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11145-021-10185-y

Letter Grades and Testing

Several studies have shown that students who handwrite notes in class get better grades compared to those who type notes. In one study of college students, those who took handwritten notes had better conceptual understanding and were able to retain more information from lectures compared to those who typed notes (1). Additionally, another study found that students who handwrote their notes and drew concept maps of the lecture material scored higher on exams compared to those who typed out their notes (2).

The increased learning and retention from handwriting notes is likely due to the extra processing that occurs when writing by hand. Handwriting notes requires focused attention and the ability to summarize and synthesize ideas in real-time (3). The motor experience of writing also reinforces learning and helps activate parts of the brain involved in memory. All of these benefits ultimately lead to improved performance on exams and assignments for those who handwrite their class notes.

Standardized tests also show the learning benefits of handwriting. On tests that involve generative writing like essays, students who handwrite tend to produce higher quality responses compared to those who type. Even in math and science subjects, handwriting leads to improved problem-solving abilities and test performance (4). Tools like the Test of Handwriting Skills offer standardized assessment of a student’s handwriting proficiency in both manuscript and cursive styles (5). Such tools help identify areas where a student may need extra practice or instruction to improve their handwriting abilities.

1. https://www.wpspublish.com/ths-r-test-of-handwriting-skills-revised
2. https://assessments.academictherapy.com/i/test-of-handwriting-skills-revised-ths-r
3. https://www.lwtears.com/resources/screener-handwriting-proficiency

Social-Emotional Skills

Handwriting helps children develop important social-emotional skills that go beyond putting words on paper. The process teaches children discipline, patience, and pride in their work.

As children practice proper letter formation and work to improve their penmanship, they learn to slow down, focus, and pay close attention to detail. This encourages the development of self-discipline, concentration, and determination as children work hard to make each letter correctly. Handwriting requires repetition and practice over time to master, teaching young students the values of diligence and patience.

The sense of satisfaction and accomplishment children feel upon completing a neatly handwritten assignment or story gives them ownership over their work and boosts their self-esteem. Children can feel proud of their hard work and mastery of this important skill. As they continue to refine their handwriting, they gain confidence in their abilities.

According to one source, “Strong feelings and emotions such as anger or frustration are always plain to see in handwriting.” (https://graphology-world.com/feelings-emotions-handwriting/)

By learning to calmly focus their emotions and thoughts during handwriting practice, children also gain skills in self-regulation and managing feelings productively.

Alternatives to Handwriting

As technology advances, new alternatives to handwriting have emerged, especially for students with disabilities like dysgraphia. Typing on keyboards and voice dictation technology like speech-to-text are two common substitutions for handwriting in the classroom (source). Typing helps students get their ideas down quickly without the motor difficulties of handwriting. Dictation tools allow students to speak their thoughts and have them converted to text. These technologies remove the physical barrier of writing by hand.

However, research on the effectiveness of typing versus handwriting is mixed. One study found that students who wrote essays by hand wrote more words, had faster writing fluency, and produced better quality writing than those who typed (source). The process of handwriting may stimulate more of the brain networks related to thinking, language, and working memory compared to typing. More research is still needed to determine if digital alternatives produce the same benefits as handwriting.


In conclusion, handwriting continues to provide unique benefits for students in the digital age. While typing and other forms of digital communication have become more predominant, handwriting remains an important part of education. Research shows that handwriting leads to improved fine motor skills, memory retention, literacy skills, focus and attention, and social-emotional development. Although some schools are moving away from handwriting instruction, evidence suggests students should continue practicing handwriting to support cognitive, academic, and socioemotional growth.

Based on the research, schools should continue to incorporate daily handwriting practice into elementary grade levels. Educators should allow time for writing letters, words, and sentences by hand. This not only prepares students for assignments and assessments that require handwriting, but also activates brain regions tied to learning and development. While appropriate technology use has a place in education, handwriting should not be removed entirely from curricula. A balanced approach that utilizes both handwriting and keyboarding, starting at an early age, will allow students to reap the unique benefits of each as they progress through their academic journeys.

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