Handwriting skills still needed in digital age
The Sector > Research > New research backs the importance of handwriting skills in the digital age

New research backs the importance of handwriting skills in the digital age

by Freya Lucas

June 11, 2024

Having legible handwriting might be seen as a redundant attribute in the digital age, however new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has shown that learning to write with a pencil (or pen) and paper is directly linked to optimum learning.


The findings are especially relevant to early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals who are educating “digital natives” who are often very familiar with technology and a variety of devices.


Led by Dr Anabela Abreu Malpique, the findings highlight the importance of teaching handwriting “in primary school education and beyond.”  


“We argue that it is vital to teach handwriting in the first years of schooling and to continue supporting the development of handwriting skills across primary and secondary years. Handwriting skills are connected to improved spelling and greater capacity to write longer and higher-quality texts. Handwriting also promotes our capacity to learn and memorise information,” she explained.  


“Written words have shaped our cultures, defining our actions and thoughts as human beings.”


To reach their conclusions Dr Malpique and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis to examine studies published between 2000 and 2022, comparing the effects of writing by hand or keyboarding on primary students’ writing performance (kindergarten to year 6). 


“It’s often presumed that children are digital natives because they have grown up with different technologies around them, so they will be naturally able to write texts using digital devices,” she said. 


“Yet, the research findings showed that primary students produce higher-quality work using paper and pen(cil) than when using a keyboard.”


A recent large-scale project examined the  writing performance of Year 2 children (544 students, 47 classrooms) in Western Australia, finding that children wrote longer and higher-quality handwritten texts. 


Dr Malpique noted the importance of transcription skills such as spelling, and how quickly and accurately children can handwrite or type. 


“Writing resembles other complex skills, such as driving a car,” she said. “Unless we automatise the management of gears, pedals, blinkers and wipers (transcription skills), we cannot select the most efficient or the most scenic route (creating texts).”


Teaching children how to write letters is connected to their spelling and the capacity to develop automaticity in writing texts by hand, she continued. 


It’s not all about pencils and paper however, with the research team advocating for explicit teaching about ‘keyboarding’.


“Keyboarding, much like handwriting, involves a complex set of cognitive, visual and motor processes, requiring frequent practice and instruction,” Dr  Malpique said.


With Artificial intelligence (AI) systems already starting to revolutionise the way people communicate using written words, this ‘digital shift’ is likely to have an impact upon writing acquisition and development, she continued. 


“So, researchers are stressing the urgency of preparing early writers to become “hybrid writers”, able to produce paper and computer-generated texts with a similar level of proficiency.”


Read The contributions of transcription skills to paper-based and computer-based text composing in the early years, the work of Dr Anabela Abreu Malpique, Dr Mustafa Asil, Associate Professor Deborah Pino-Pasternak, Professor Susan Ledger and Professor Timothy Teo. 

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