By: Michelle Dickinson

Writing movements leave a motor memory in children’s brains, which help them recognise letters. Photo / 123RF

Humans were able to speak for several hundred thousand years before they started writing their ideas down more permanently on to solid surfaces. Since 4000BC, when the Mesopotamian people scratched bookkeeping symbols into clay, writing instruments have been through many changes.

From the invention of paper in China through to scrolls and now books, the written word has been stored in several different formats. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the introduction of the ballpoint pen brought an affordable price point and instant-drying ink to penmanship.

Yet today, the act of writing a long letter has been replaced by text messages filled with acronyms and emoji. Few of us write on paper any more, either at home or in our workplaces. The most common thing we use a pen for is signing our own signature as an authority – this function too can now readily be performed electronically.

Typing on a keyboard is faster than writing and helps us to keep up with the increase in communication speeds brought about by technology. With a bit of practise many of us are able to type much faster than we can write with a pen, but this convenience and speed may not necessarily translate to better learning and retention of information, according to research.

A paper published in the journal Psychological Science found university students who took handwritten lecture notes were better able to answer questions on the content taught than those who used a laptop. The theory is that working on paper forces students to interpret and rephrase information before writing it down which required a comprehension and summarising process.

The students who took notes on a laptop tended to type everything word for word – without processing the information at the time – which meant they didn’t grasp the concepts as well as their counterparts.

This transition away from handwriting may also be affecting skills development. Handwriting is a physical exercise that involves hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills.

The difficulty of these tasks is easily observed as children learn to write – they struggle to master how to hold a pen, and need to practice the careful manoeuvres required for each individual letter. These writing movements leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps children to recognise letters, a process that doesn’t seem to happen in those learning the alphabet using a keyboard.

The impact of this increasing loss of handwriting is probably most pronounced in the Chinese language. The written form of modern Chinese has more than 50,000 characters – many derived from a pictograph and requiring specific strokes and flicks of the pen or brush to be correct and legible.

Smartphones don’t come with 50,000 character keyboards; instead there is a process where the Roman alphabet is used to select the starting sound for a word, and a corresponding option of Chinese characters are given. As more young people use smartphones and keyboards in schools and universities, the complicated art of Chinese character writing is at risk of dying out.

Just as typing has started to overtake handwriting, so typing is starting now to give way to speech recognition. Virtual assistants like Siri or Cortana are able to translate verbal language into writing. The capability will continue to evolve, but they are already more than capable of handling simple “writing” tasks like reminders and shopping lists.

Exploring the impact of these changes in the way we write, learn and store information and communicate is fascinating. If current trends continue, it seems likely the way we write today will follow the scrolls and quills of yesteryear into the history books.

Source: NZ Herald


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