Learning Their Letters: Pencil or Keyboard?

During the past century the way that children are taught their letters has changed as the writing technologies have changed;  from chalk on a slate, to fat pencil on lined paper, to a keyboard with letters appearing on a computer screen.

Since using a keyboard can make writing easier, faster, and more legible, should we not complete the switch over to technology and teach children their letters using the available modern technologies?

The argument supporting this argument follows the logic expressed in the following quotation:  

In order for students to accelerate their writing skills, they must first master the keyboard, then they must have quick and easy access to digital writing tools. The more often students write digitally, the better and more fluent their writing becomes.

The evidence presented to support this particular argument is that “success” on the exams that will used to test the Common Core will be contingent upon kids’ ability to fluently express their ideas on an online test.

But science is argument from empirical data; that is, evidence. 

What evidence supports keyboarding over hand writing or hand writing over keyboarding? 

If you do look for research-based evidence about the difference between learning to write using a keyboard versus using hand writing, it turns out that there is solid empirical evidence from a variety of sources that children who learn their letters using hand-writing have better outcomes that those who learn their letters with using a keyboard. (For more information, click)

Learning to write is a complex of cognitive and psychomotor tasks that are best learned when the psychomotor and the cognitive parts are closely linked. In one study, young children were taught to recognize letters by either free-hand copying the letter, tracing the letter shape, or by using a keyboard. After the treatment, students repeated the tasks under a brain scan, those children who shaped the letters free hand showed activity in three parts of the brain that are activated in adults who are reading. The children who used the tracing method or keyboard showed little activity in those same areas.

The study’s principal investigator suggests that the reason for the difference may be in the variability of the free hand reproduction of the letters. The child approximates the shape of the letter and then tries to improve the match between the model and what he or she produces.  That struggle to reduce the variability may enhance the learning of the shapes.

In a study that followed a group of children from grades two to five it was found that printing, cursive, and keyboarding led to distinct outcomes. Children who composed text by hand were able to generate more different words more quickly than did the keyboarders but also developed more ideas for compositions.

The links at the end of the blog refer to additional discussion.

The takeaway: common sense is perhaps not a great guide when we are thinking about the best way to teach. The common sense that “in the modern world, kids need to use a keyboard to write, therefore it is best to use keyboards for learning letters” is not supported by the evidence.

Evidence-based instructional practice matters.


Additional Reading:

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades? from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html


What Learning Cursive Does for Your Brain from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/what-learning-cursive-does-your-brain


The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001691804001167


Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing from http://www.intechopen.com/books/advances-in-haptics/digitizing-literacy-reflections-on-the-haptics-of-writing



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