Hands help us to see!

This posting is a plug for the latest issue of Scientific American Mind magazine (September/October 2013 issue) because it is chock full of pieces all teachers need to be cognisant of.

The list includes: an article on consciousness in infants; a very thoughtful piece entitled ‘Letting go of self-esteem’, their cover story; a special report on ‘How we learn’, what works and what doesn’t; and, an intriguing item on ‘The Science of Handwriting’.

The article on the science of handwriting by Brandon Keim is, I suppose, the least scientific in that it doesn’t claim that the evidence on the importance of teaching handwriting is absolutely solid. However, what it does say is that there’s enough evidence to favour much more emphasis on teaching it in the early years.

Keim speculates that the neglect of handwriting in recent years is partly because of the increase in the number of adults who now hardly ever handwrite anything, most written communication being conducted through typed text. Interestingly too, he believes that people have in recent years increasingly thought that the medium is the message and that the tools, which include our hands, are of little or no importance.

However, what we’ve learnt in the past few decades is that handwriting seems to stimulate motor activity in the brain that typing doesn’t affect. Literacy professor Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway asserts that handwriting ‘unifies hand, eye and attention at a single point in space and time’. Keim also cites evidence from Marieke Longchamp from Aix-Marseille University in France: in children and adults, the latter learning unfamiliar letter forms in Bengali, Longchamp found that there were dramatic differences in the ability to recall letter knowledge when both groups were taught a handwritten script. In addition, it seems to be the case that seeing handwritten letters ‘triggers … the neurological instructions for penning [them]’.

Karin James is a cognitive neuroscientist at Indiana University Bloomington, whom I wrote about here two years ago. She maintains that ‘seeing handwritten letters not only triggers the expected motor activity but even heightens activity in purely visual areas [of the brain]. Hands help us see’!

As the article says, there is a ‘continuum of complementary findings’ on this area of research, the evidence tending towards showing that handwriting helps the writer organise their material more effectively, greatly assists working memory, and could help in teaching young children to read and spell. In the words of Virginia Berninger of Washington University, the hand is the ‘end organ of the language system’.

What isn’t clear from the piece is whether or not working memory and performance is improved further by asking the writer to say the sounds of the spellings as they are writing them.