Typing vs Handwriting: why it isn't "either or"

 Photo by  Georgie Cobbs  on  Unsplash

Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

Typing and handwriting: these are two areas of teaching that many teachers, and parents, have very strong feelings about. For some teachers, teaching typing is a lowest-common-denominator example of technology in education: unimaginative, boring, non-contextual and belonging to the 90's and 2000's in terms of how innovative it is. Other teachers might argue that handwriting, particularly cursive handwriting, is an even less relevant holdover from a much earlier time in education.

Recently I actually had a conversation with my own  mother in which she asked, with serious concern, "Will students these days even know how to hold a pencil by the time they leave school?". At the time I couldn't help but feel annoyance at the kinds of tabloid-style, fear-based headlines and arguments that are designed to scare people into thinking that education is neglecting vital elements of student learning, but there was also a small part of me that thought "Well, so what if they don't? Maybe that's the way communication is going".

Certainly, when we look at what form of written communication we, as adults, need most in our lives, I would guess that most of us rely much more on our typing skills than our cursive writing skills. However, having had some time to reflect and some enlightening conversations with Katierose, what I want to suggest is that this either-or mentality maybe isn't so helpful in terms of either the dialogue, educational progress or student needs.

Instead, I think we need to be asking ourselves more purpose-based questions:

 

1. What is handwriting useful for?
2. What is typing useful for?
3. How can we make the most of both for our students?

 

 

What is handwriting useful for?

You might have seen in the last couple of years a raft of articles listing the benefits of handwriting on cognition and learning:

They all cite retention, creativity, attention to detail as benefits and tend to make some pretty bold claims! For example, the Mental Floss article goes so far as to say: 

1. It’s better for learning

2. It makes you a better writer

3. It will prevent you from being distracted

4. It keeps your brain sharp as you get older
— http://mentalfloss.com/article/33508/4-benefits-writing-hand

Those are big claims, and who wouldn't want something as cut and dried as "learning better" or "writing better" for their student or child. The fact is, though, that not all of these claims are based on valid or applicable research. This Time magazine article, for example, has a much more balanced take on the issue. Some of the key points are that yes, there is plenty of research on the benefits of handwriting on retention and memory, but some of the bold statements like "handwriting benefits creativity" are very hard to substantiate, because creativity is extremely hard to measure and study, and "It's better for learning" is just downright reductive.

Some aspects of learning? Yes.

All of it? No.

What is typing useful for?

Whether and how typing can be beneficial to learning is a different issue, and one that is only really explored in the negatives of the handwriting research. That research shows that typing is not the best way to learn letters in early literacy. It has shown that typing is not as beneficial to retention as handwriting but I think we can identify what typing is beneficial for simply by thinking about how and why we use it in our own lives.

I am typing this blog post right now, rather than handwriting it, for several reasons:

1. It is the fastest, least physically demanding way to communicate lots of longhand words

Typing, for most people is much, much faster and more comfortable that writing in longhand, even in cursive. I remember having to write essays by hand as a student and I also very clearly remember the hand cramp, the finger blisters, the ink all over the side of my palm. It wasn't comfortable and I certainly would feel much happier about writing an essay, a story or any other long written task in typed form than handwritten form.

2. It is easier for readers to access, understand and share

Typing takes illegibility out of the equation, which is extremely important for students in exams or other important situations. I can almost hear teachers saying "Well, if they want to be understood students need to learn to write legibly" but for me that is a very unfair approach. When our students are writing an essay or a college application or a poem or a story or anything, what they should be being assessed on is  the assigned task and nothing more. Unless it's a handwriting task, we have no business marking them down on handwriting.

Typing also allows us to share our work easily with a small or a huge audience, allowing many people to access our ideas at once. Having the potential for a real-world audience is incredibly valuable for students: it encourages them to take more care, it makes the learning more meaningful and authentic.

3. It is easier to correct

Both for the teacher and the student. In writing this  blog post I wrote sections, moved them around, deleted things, added them back again and edited my work in a natural, flexible way that worked for me. Handwriting forces you to start and the beginning and just keep going. Of course planning, drafting, editing, correction and redrafting are all vital parts of the writing process and important skills for our students to learn, but typing removes many of the barriers to that process.

4. It allows for multimedia enhancement

Typed pieces can be enhanced meaningfully and easily with images, videos, sound and links to enable us and our students to share ideas and knowledge in a more detailed and rich way. 

 

How can we make the most of both of them for our students?

I think what we need to be doing here, as with most of technology integration, is thinking in a purpose-based way, and thinking contextually. Both handwriting and typing are indeed pretty boring and uninspiring when taught in isolation! Half-hour lessons copying cursive sentences from textbooks or the board, or typing meaningless strings of letters leave little to be desired. So, let's teach both of these communication methods in the context of what they are helpful for.

Typing

Great for presentation, sharing with a wider audience, communicating longer ideas in written form...

SO:

Teach it in the context of communication!

  • Teach students to position their hands and fingers so they can type quickly and accurately
  • Give them a real-world audience for their learning through blogging, emails, ebooks and expect high quality writing in both skill and content
  • Teach students to spell check, format and design typed work so that it is of good quality, easy to read and aesthetically pleasing

Handwriting:

Great for retention & critical thinking...                                               

So:

Teach it in the context of note-taking!  

  • Teach students to take quick, legible notes during research, lessons, lectures and discussions. 

  • Teach them how to organise their notes, how to bullet point, how to pick out key words from what they are hearing or reading
  • Make cursive or whatever handwriting style you are required to teach, or wish to teach, relevant, contextual and helpful to the student. 

Of course, we still have to teach the basics. How to form and join the letters and how to write legibly when handwriting, and in typing how to place the hands and where the keys are have to be taught and take some time to learn.

We don't need to, and we shouldn't, make a choice between handwriting and typing - we need to give our students a basis in both, grounded in purpose so that their experience is relevant, transferrable and benefits their wider learning. Both are valuable and both can be embedded into learning in a purpose-based way that makes the most of what each has to offer.