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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

The Pen is Mightier: Supporting student-centered learning through handwriting

The pen is mightier. Want to get students to learn? Put down the laptop and keyboard - and pick up a pencil.

I love handwriting, I love how it feels. I love choosing just the right writing tool for each project. When I am writing, I am almost in a zen-like state. It helps me slow down and collect my thoughts to the point of reaching the “ah-ha” moment of what I was trying to communicate all along. I recently read an article from BusinessInsider.com entitled, Here’s Why Writing Things Out By Hand Makes You Smarter. The tag-line is “the pen is mightier.” As a person who prefers the pen to the keyboard, I was compelled to read on.

Messy pages, clear thinking. While typing may be neater and faster, the BusinessInsider.com article describes the findings of a 2014 paper published in Psychological Science, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking”. Researchers from Princeton and University of California, Los Angeles compared the effectiveness of writing out classroom notes longhand with typing them on a laptop. Their findings suggest that learners who take notes on laptops tend to transcribe every word they hear. Doing so may impair learning, not only because of distractions from web-surfing but because typing can be so fast that the process doesn’t require any critical thinking. In contrast, handwriting requires the learner to slow down. Learners, who take notes by hand, won’t be able to write down every word. Instead, they need to summarize important concepts and ask questions to gain a better understanding of the material needed to write during the note-taking process.

The “ah-ha” moment. When I was teaching and a student would ask me a “brainteaser” of a question, I would hold up my chalk (yes, I am that old!) or more recently my dry erase pen in the air and say, “hold it, let me write that down!” By mid-school year, we would all laugh as the class would join in unison to say the phrase along with me! During this process the students and I would collectively sort out the questions together. The “ah-ha” moment came when the answers were in front of us in writing.

As I modeled my note-taking skills, my students followed. Over time they would mimic this in their own learning. In group activities, they would take notes on what each other was saying. During computer activities, they would get out their papers and write out equations or facts. The students understood their need to connect to the material on a deeper level.

Pick up a pen and write. As I read the article, I was reminded of the importance of being cognizant of balancing the new technologies with some tried and true practices of the past. As a support person for teacher training in special education, I am frequently in classrooms to observe and coach new teachers to deliver instruction that is student-centered and challenging yet accessible to students with disabilities.

In the case of students with disabilities, the act of handwriting can be a window for the teacher on possible reasons for academic difficulty. Often students who need additional support struggle with the fine motor process that handwriting requires. Because our language is a sound-symbol system, writing the sounds a student hears is great phonics practice. It also combines segmenting and blending, the two fundamental early reading skills, in one purposeful activity. Encouraging students to pick up a pen and write—even if the handwriting is messy-- instead of a keyboard may be a simple yet effective strategy that can assist a struggling student.

Leave our laptops at home. As I work to support special educators, I enjoy sharing the knowledge and experiences I had as a teacher that one of the oldest and simplest forms of communication, handwriting, very simply makes learning easier. As I write this blog post on my computer I am thankful that I do not have to translate my messy handwriting to a typewritten document. There is no doubt that technology can make our lives better, if not easier on some levels. However, using a pen or a pencil at our next meeting or in the classroom may help spark some creativity that gets lost when we are on typing on our laptop.


You may gain a new appreciation for the lost art of handwriting watching this video where Master Penman Jake Weidmann discusses his study of the art of handwriting.