Pens versus keyboards: which is better for cognitive development?

The assumption that new technology is always better than the process it replaces takes a hit with a new study which shows that when it comes to learning how to write, the pen is mightier than the keyboard.

The study, published in the journal Learning Disability Quarterly, tested groups of students, some with transcription disabilities, to write the alphabet, sentences, and essays using both a pen and a keyboard.

They found that when composing an essay, second, fourth, and sixth graders (with and without handwriting disabilities) were able to write at greater length and faster with a pen. It was also discovered that fourth and sixth graders wrote more complete sentences when using a pen to write an essay. There were mixed results for writing sentences, and solely for the alphabet did the researchers find a keyboard was better.

The widespread use of computers in education has meant that typing has been steadily supplanting handwriting as the principle method of composition, and while there are clearly benefits in legibility, this new study adds to a small body of research showing that typing, as the primary means of composition, may not be qualitatively or quantitatively superior to the process it supplants – at least among children.

Author, philosopher and critic Umberto Eco also draws attention to the typing’s formal deficit: it is not, nor can be, an art. As he notes in a piece discussing an Italian newspaper article on the lost art of handwriting. He writes:

“…writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think… The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination.”

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