Researchers have conducted a small study on the effect of learning to write an alphabet by hand and found that it might have benefits in other areas of literacy. Those writing by hand seemed to be able to learn to read faster as well as being able to spell new words.
The work published in Psychological Science had 42 people learning the Arabic alphabet. They were split into three groups: writers, typers, and video watchers. Each group had to learn the letters differently but they all had an image of the character plus the sound and name. The video group learned a letter and then was quizzed immediately if the letter on screen was the one they just learned. The typers had to find the letter on the keyboard and the writers had to copy the letter with pen and paper.
The groups had to do this learning in as many as six sessions. At that point, everyone can recognize the alphabet making very few errors when tested. But the writers learned the alphabet the fastest. Some of them had the alphabet down in just two sessions.
But the researchers tested more crucial markers of literacy which the subjects were not trained for. They wanted to know if they could write with them, using to spell new words, and read unfamiliar words. The group of writers was by far the best in all these tasks.
"The main lesson is that even though they were all good at recognizing letters, the writing training was the best at every other measure. And they required less time to get there," lead author Professor Robert Wiley, from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, said in a statement. "With writing, you're getting a stronger representation in your mind that lets you scaffold toward these other types of tasks that don't in any way involve handwriting."
Every participant in the study was an adult but the scientists are confident that the same for children. The key, they argue, is that handwriting reinforces what is being learned about the letter, such as the sound, beyond their shape.
"The question out there for parents and educators is why should our kids spend any time doing handwriting," explained senior author professor Brenda Rapp, from Johns Hopkins University. "Obviously, you're going to be a better hand-writer if you practice it. But since people are handwriting less then maybe who cares? The real question is: Are there other benefits to handwriting that have to do with reading and spelling and understanding? We find there most definitely are."