Vendor Focus: Power of the pen

Dr Michael Kaschak and Pilot Pen's Director of Marketing Ariann Langsam explore the place of handwriting in the age of digital technology

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You might think that the digital age would eventually make both handwriting and writing instruments obsolete. However, recent studies have shown that many individuals value handwritten communication more now than ever before. 

Most people are not just enjoying the physical act of writing, they are benefitting from the more subtle neurological effects that range from cognitive gains to the greater emotional well-being. The myriad benefits of writing by hand keep this form of communication and self-expression not only relevant, but also necessary. 

In a recent study fielded by Pilot Corporation of America (Pilot Pen), 86% of individuals surveyed reported that they prefer handwriting over typing when composing a personal communication. The driving factor for these handwriting loyalists is intimacy – survey results indicate that 68% of respondents agree that they feel ‘closer or more intimate’ when handwriting a personal note versus typing the same message. 

Since each person’s handwriting is as unique as a fingerprint, the recipient can instantly recognise the handwriting and feel the closeness of that relationship. 

Neurological benefits

Writing by hand has a variety of neurological benefits across all phases of life, ranging from greater information retention in the classroom to higher productivity in the workplace. The act of writing helps us to organise our thoughts and tasks, so it’s not surprising that 80% of those surveyed prefer to handwrite their to-do lists, with 53% “agreeing completely”, that it makes them feel more productive. 

Also, 59% of people surveyed felt they retain more information when they handwrite class or meeting notes, indicating that in true working memory tasks, handwriting is not only a motivator, but a memory aid. It’s a proven method to help the brain integrate complex thoughts and create positive results for both practical and creative tasks. 

There is a growing body of research that highlights handwriting’s unique relationship with the brain with regard to composing thoughts and ideas. It suggests that picking up a pen, rather than using a laptop, can help individuals and especially students reap advantages in reading comprehension, information retention and time management. 

The foundation of Pilot’s Power to the Pen marketing campaign lies in connectivity and benefits offered by handwriting. We believe in the power of the written word and that the pen is more than just a functional tool – it’s an instrument that can help inspire change. That’s why we have partnered with STOMP Out Bullying*. 

One in four kids is bullied, and 8% miss at least one class per month for fear of bullies. We need to help empower our children to take a stand. We can’t think of a better way to use the power of the pen. 

A percentage of proceeds from sales of Pilot’s FriXion Clicker erasable gel ink pen is helping to fund STOMP Out Bullying’s educational and support programmes to “erase bullying” behaviours in US schools. 

At Pilot we embrace the ongoing relevance and importance of writing, along with the need for new and innovative writing instruments that deliver unsurpassed quality and an exceptional writing experience. 

The true power of the pen is that it allows us to learn, communicate, express ourselves and connect in a way that no other medium can offer. We remain committed to helping to write the next chapter in this digital age. 

Handwriting and literacy development 

Learning to read is an academic milestone that has important, lifelong consequences. Children who fail to develop literacy skills tend to perform poorly in school, and grow up to face limited career prospects1,2. Reading to preschoolers and engaging in activities to build their oral language skills can contribute to the successful acquisition of literacy skills’. 

According to a recent set of studies, learning to handwrite letters also has a role to play in fostering a child’s transition to literacy. Dr Karin James and her research group have conducted a series of experiments examining the role of handwriting in the development of letter perception3,4, which is an important component of literacy skill. Brain imaging studies conducted on adults have identified neural circuitry that is involved in the processing of letters and words3

Dr James and her colleagues reported that the same neural circuitry is involved when preschool children process letters, but only when the children had experience printing the letters. 

Children who learned about the letters by typing, as well as children who were exposed to the letters through other means, did not show activity in this circuitry3,5. This means children who learn about letters through printing seem to integrate knowledge of these letters into the developing ‘reading system’ in the brain. 

Dr James has an intriguing hypothesis about the benefits that printing can have for developing readers3. Skilled readers need to be able to recognise letters in whatever form they are encountered. For example, you need to be able to recognise a letter whether it is written in uppercase or lowercase, whether it is typed or handwritten, and regardless of the idiosyncratic features of the font or handwriting you are reading. 

This skill requires readers to recognise the core features of the letters, and to ignore those features of the letter that do not affect its identity (eg think of the difference between an ‘b’ when it is printed, used in cursive writing or typed in different fonts). Printing is a fine motor skill that requires time to develop, and thus children’s earliest efforts to print letters will tend to be imperfect. 

Dr James suggests that the production of imperfect letters helps children to learn which features are important to the recognition of that letter, and which are not3. Giving children the opportunity to produce letters, and to do so imperfectly, might therefore be a useful way of facilitating the development of key literacy skills. 

Learning to read is a complex task and the successful acquisition of literacy skills is affected by many factors. Nonetheless, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that handwriting practice, particularly in the preschool and early elementary school years, may provide children with benefits in learning this vital skill. 

Handwriting and learning 

The benefits of handwriting do not stop in the preschool and early elementary school years. A recently published study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer suggests that even college-age students can benefit from handwriting6. In a series of experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer presented students with lecture material and gave them the opportunity to either take handwritten notes or use a laptop. 

The key finding of these experiments is that students who took handwritten notes outperformed students who typed their notes. The difference was most pronounced on questions that probed the students’ conceptual knowledge of the material that was presented. 

Mueller and Oppenheimer suggest that handwriting and typing lead to different note-taking strategies6. Typing is fast, but also limited in the way that information can be put on the page. Students who typed the notes had a tendency to take down information word for word without thinking about it too much. Their attention was placed on the transcription of the lecture material, rather than on processing its content. 

Handwriting is slower than typing; therefore students taking notes by hand did not have the option to transcribe the lecture in detail. They were forced to think about the content and be judicious in what they wrote down, and how they put the information on the page. Thinking about the lecture content as it unfolds aided students’ acquisition of the concepts that were presented. 

Handwriting: old-school technology, old-school principles 

The evidence reviewed here suggests that handwriting, a centuries-old technology, has a beneficial role to play in the educational process even in an age of increasing reliance on digital technology. 

There is undoubtedly a lot left to learn about how and why handwriting helps students, but our current understanding of the beneficial aspects of handwriting are firmly grounded in well-known principles of learning and memory. 

Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conjecture that handwriting benefits learning of lecture material by forcing students to think more deeply about the material while taking notes is an example of the levels of processing effect (memory is better for material that is processed more deeply) that has been observed in dozens of studies over the past several decades7,8

Dr James’ finding that handwriting letters aids learning is consistent with a large body of evidence showing that doing is typically better than more passive methods of learning. Indeed, the idea of action – in this case handwriting – as a driver of learning can be observed in the foundational work of Jean Piaget9, and in the educational practices that have long been found in Montessori schools10

We conclude with a final point. The past several years have witnessed an awakening of the concept of ‘free range’ children, and the idea that free play and expression can have an important effect on children’s development. 

The work of Dr James and others suggests the possibility that it might be useful to also think about ‘free hand’ children, and the idea that developing the ability to handwrite, and to use handwriting for the expression of ideas, may pay dividends for our children3,11

References

 1) National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
2) Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (Solving problems in the teaching of literacy). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
3) James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1, 32-42.
4) James, K. H. (2010). Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain. Developmental Science, 13, 279-288.
5) Kersey, A. J., & James, K. H. (2013). Brain activation patterns resulting from learning letter forms through active self-production and passive observation in young children. Frontiers in Psychology, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00567
6) Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.
7) Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
8) Craik, F. I. M. (2002). Levels of processing: Past, present… and future? Memory, 10, 305-318.
9) Glenberg, A. M. (1997). What memory is for. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 1-55.
10) Glenberg, A. M., Jaworski, B., Rischal, M., & Levin, J. R. (2007). What brains are for: Action, meaning, and reading comprehension. In D. McNamara (Ed). Reading Comprehension Strategies: Theories, Interventions, and Technologies (pp. 221-240). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
11) Berninger, V. (2009). Highlights of programmatic, interdisciplinary research on writing. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 24, 69-80.
*STOMP Out Bullying is the leading national anti-bullying organisation for kids and teens in the US. With your support, Pilot will be making a minimum of $125,000 donation to STOMP Out Bullying to help bring awareness and education programmes designed to reduce and prevent bullying in schools and across the US.