Type or Handwrite? What’s the Difference for Learning?

How is typing affecting your child's learning? I decided to see what science and researchers have found out.
How is typing affecting your child’s learning? I decided to see what science and researchers have found out.

Picture twenty, squirmy ten-year old students all facing the screens of their school-provided laptops in my English Language Arts classroom. In front of them, is a Microsoft Word document—a table in which the students are laboriously typing out the week’s vocabulary words. Some students type fast and furiously; others are looking back and forth from the word on the board or in their books to the letters of the keyboards, and later to their screens. These students are getting very behind in typing out the words. One must wonder if these students even realize what the word they have typed says when the process of typing it out required looking in multiple places and searching for the letters on the keyboard, all to make it a whole word. Observing this, I wonder if all these extra steps could be hindering comprehension of the word or phrase?

After typing the vocabulary words onto the chart, the children fill in each square of the Word document with definitions, synonyms, sentences and other relevant information about the vocabulary words. Students are often copying and pasting definitions from dictionary.com, or they are using Microsoft Word thesaurus to choose a synonym. With one click, the synonym appears on the screen. It is hard to know if the child has read the synonym or processed it in any way if all she has done is clicked. Will the synonym disappear from her memory as fast as the click?

Last year was my school’s first year implementing the one-to-one laptop initiative. Now, after a year of use, I seek to evaluate and explore which uses of laptops in the classroom work best. I have tried using the laptops for many different kinds of activities and projects, with varying results.

While I found laptops to be fabulous tools for research and presentations, one question remained: to type, or not to type? Is it ever better to handwrite?

Last year, I was often asked to explain why I had my students handwrite certain material in their notebooks, rather than typing it on a computer application. During these times, I explained that I suspected that typing was resulting in less retention of information, either because of the distracting nature of manipulating Word documents for fifth graders, or because there is something cognitively different about typing and handwriting when it comes to retention and memory.

It became clear to me, that my coworkers and I needed more information about how typing and handwriting affect learning in the classroom, so that we could make informed decisions about when to have students type and when to handwrite.

I decided to see what do recent studies tell us about how typing new information compares to handwriting new information in terms of memory and retention?

Literature Review: What the Studies Say

The attention of the typist is separated into two distinct spaces: the “motor space, e.g. the keyboard, where the writer acts, and the visual space, e.g. the screen" (Mangen and Velay (2010),  p. 396).
The attention of the typist is separated into two distinct spaces: the “motor space, e.g. the keyboard, where the writer acts, and the visual space, e.g. the screen” (Mangen and Velay, 2010, p. 396).

As computer use becomes more integral to classroom learning, researchers are working to shed light on the consequences of handwriting versus typing for learners. The casual observer can perceive that the movements of the hands, fingers, and eyes are different when handwriting and when typing. Mangen and Velay (2010) note that when handwriting, a person uses one hand to make numerous, intricate movements that form letters, the other hand holds or adjusts the paper, and the eyes follow the tip of the pen. Unlike handwriting, there is no “graphomotor component” to typing (p. 386). When typing, the person typically uses two hands to select and tap buttons that corresponds with letters. The attention of the typist is separated into two distinct spaces: the “motor space, e.g. the keyboard, where the writer acts, and the visual space, e.g. the screen, where the writer perceives the results of the inscription.” The eyes may stay on the screen or the eyes may move from the keyboard to the screen, “continually oscillating between two spatiotemporally distinct spaces which are, by contrast conjoined in handwriting” (p. 396).


Brain scans have shown that when learning,  handwriting activates more areas of the brain than typing.
Brain scans have shown that when learning, handwriting activates more areas of the brain than typing (Longcamp et al. 2008).

Studies have begun to illuminate the effects of these key differences between handwriting and typing. Longcamp et al. found that learning characters and letters via handwriting results in greater accuracy in the recognition of them when compared to learning them via typing, both with preschool children (2005) and with adults (2006).Furthermore, fMRI data from brain scans of adults who had learned original characters show that different areas of the brain are activated when attempting to recognize characters learned by handwriting and by typing. When recognizing the characters learned through typing, only one area of the brain was activated, the supramarginal gyrus in the right hemisphere. In contrast, when recognizing the characters learned through handwriting, ten areas of the brain were activated, in both the left and right hemispheres. Notably, four of these same regions of the brain were activated when viewing “overlearned” letters of the alphabet. Of particular importance was the activation of the left Broca’s region as this is a region of speech production and other linguistic functions. Thus, merely looking at letters that have been learned by the sensorimotor task of handwriting, activates a language center of the brain, suggesting that while viewing there is a “reactivation of motor knowledge,” the knowledge gained when first learning to handwrite letters as a child (p. 812-813). While my students will be learning new words rather than new characters, it seems likely that the added cognitive dimension of handwriting purported by this study will play a factor in my students’ ability to learn new information better by hand.

While the Longcamp et al. (2008) confirm a motor component to memory of letters and characters, the findings of Smoker, Murphy, and Rockwell (2009) imply similar consequences for handwriting and typing in memory of entire words. A study of adults who self-reported daily computer usage completed word recall and recognition tasks after having handwritten or typed the words one time each. The study reported higher incidence of correct recall and recognition for handwritten words with respect to typing, supporting the researchers’ hypothesis that “the increased kinesthetic information from handwriting creates a more complex memory trace than created by typing” (p. 1746).

Additional research supports that handwriting may play a role in superior synthesis and retention of complex ideas. In three studies, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) found that typed note taking of lectures resulted in “shallower processing” than by longhand note taking of lectures (p. 1159). Each study followed a group of university students who attended lectures and used either handwriting or typing for note taking. In all three studies, the students in the typing group wrote more words, “verbatim” from the lecture, while the longhand group wrote fewer words and included more synthesized ideas. In all three studies, students were quizzed on the information of the lectures about “factual” information and to answer “conceptual” questions. In the first study, the students were given no time to review their notes; in the second study, again the students were given no time to review their notes, but the typing group was verbally advised to try to summarize and synthesize rather than write words from the lecture verbatim; in the third study, the students were not advised about how to type the notes, yet both the typing group and the longhand group were told to study and take the quiz a week later. In all of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) cases, the students in the longhand group were able to answer more conceptual quiz questions correctly, with the highest rate of success for both types of questions being the longhand group who studied their notes.

While Mueller and Oppenheimer’s findings (2014) suggest that adults tend to “shallowly” process information through typing, Berninger et al. (2009) provides data that shows that second, fourth, and sixth graders compose longer essays when handwriting than typing. The five year, longitudinal study followed two cohorts: one from first grade through fifth grade and the other from third grade through seventh grade. Within these groups, students with learning disabilities in writing and/or spelling (LD-TD) were compared to students who did not have a learning disability in writing and/or spelling. The study found that while students in fourth and sixth grade produced letters faster and included more words into single sentences when typing, this was not so with essay composing (for both LD-TD and non LD-TD students). During essay writing, second, fourth, and sixth graders wrote more words by hand than by typing, writing each word in fewer seconds. Furthermore, in fourth grade and above, these essays included more complete sentences and more ideas. Thus, at “text level,” a level that requires planning, sequencing, and deep continuous thought, handwriting gave the children “a consistent advantage across grade levels” (p. 130). The results of Berninger et al.’s (2009) study lend support to my expectation that handwriting will facilitate students in writing new vocabulary into complete sentences and in developing more context surrounding the new words.

In sum, while more research is needed to determine the full scope of the effects of handwriting and typing on learning, there is evidence that handwriting characters, letters, words and ideas leads to deeper cognition, resulting in greater memory, recognition, comprehension, and development of ideas. Furthermore, research findings imply that even though some of my students are fast, efficient keyboarders, this is not likely to translate into greater idea development, synthesis, or memory of new words and information.

A recent study shows that even though 3rd and 5th graders typed words and sentences in isolation faster than they handwrote them, they composed longer essays, with more complete sentences and more ideas when writing by hand (Berninger et al.’ 2009).
A recent study shows that even though 3rd and 5th graders typed words and sentences in isolation faster than they handwrote them, they composed longer essays, with more complete sentences and more ideas when writing by hand (Berninger et al.’ 2009).

Teacher and Administrator Interviews

Seeking greater context for technology use in classrooms and the prevalence of typing and handwriting in classrooms, I interviewed three teachers and two administrators, all of whom had more experience than me with one-to-one laptop/tablet implementation in their classrooms, between three and seven years of experience. The five interviewees were presently working at the elementary and middle school level in five different international schools in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

When I asked how often the students used typing for recording new information in their classes, all of the three teachers reported they never do this. When asked, “Do you think typing versus handwriting makes a difference in the students’ ability to learn the information?” the teachers’ responses varied. JoAnna, having taught with tablets for three years as a learning support teacher in first through eighth grade, reported, “Yes. I believe [typing and handwriting] use different parts of the mind. Also, typically handwriting is more comfortable for the students.” Alexis, after 4 years as a 4th grade teacher using laptops, stated, “It can depend on the kid. Learning differences in kids can make computer use very helpful.”  Derek, a fifth grade teacher who had been teaching with laptops for six years, reported that the students “keep a personal dictionary on the computer,” in which the students “usually copy and paste definitions and words and we use it only as a reference tool.”

While none of the three teachers I interviewed have students typing new information, the two administrators I interviewed reported that it was happening in the classrooms of their schools daily. However, both administrators said that students also write by hand. “Typing is maybe 40%,” reflected Myles. When asked if they thought typing or handwriting made a difference in the students’ ability to learn the information, Myles brought up that student motivational levels increase when typing, but that “the effectiveness of the notes for helping students to learn is not known.”  Rob, however, believes that typing notes does make a difference. He explained, “Yes, some teachers have moved to handwriting for note taking, but will use computers to produce.”

While none of the teachers were using typing in their classrooms for learning new information, both the teachers and the administrators reported greatest success when using typing for collaborative communication and for production activities such as presentations, research projects, and word processing.

A larger sample size would be necessary to make the assertion that most elementary and middle school teachers do not have students use typing for writing new information; however, my interviews illustrate that the years of experience using technology in these classrooms of my interviewees have not led to a practice of using typing for learning novel information. Rather, it is used later in the learning process as a presentation tool or a classroom communication tool.

What Do You Think?

I suspect that with time, writing with a stylus on tablets may be the answer to going paperless and handwriting new information you are trying to learn.

If you are using laptops or tablets daily with your students, or as a student, how have you seen it have the greatest positive impact on your learning? To type, or not to type? That is the not question–but rather, WHEN to type?


Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Augsburger, A., & Garcia, N. (2009). Comparison of pen and keyboard transcription modes in children with and without learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 32(3), 123-141.

Longcamp M., Boucard C., Gilhodes J. C., Anton J. L., Roth M., Nazarian B., & Velay J. L. (2008). Learning through hand- or typewriting influences visual recognition of new graphic shapes: Behavioral and functional imaging evidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20(5), 802-815.

Longcamp, M., Boucard, C., Gilhodes, J. C., & Velay, J. L. (2006). Remembering the orientation of newly learned characters depends on the associated writing knowledge: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Human Movement Science, 25, 646–656.

Longcamp, M., Zerbato-Poudou, M. T., & Velay, J. L. (2005). The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Acta Psychologica, 119, 67–79.

Mangen, A., &Velay, J. L. (2010). Digitizing literacy: Reflections on the haptics of writing. In M. H. Zadeh (Ed.), Advances in haptics (pp. 385-401). Rijeka, Croatia: InTech.

Mueller, P. & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.

Smoker, T., Murphy, C., & Rockwell, A. (2009). Comparing memory for handwriting versus typing. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 53, 1744-1747. 


  1. Great article thanks you.

    On things that teachers forgot most of the time: writing on a computer is what you are going to do in your job. So instead of focusing on handwriting VS computer they should find technique to make learning/taking note in a computer as good has paper or even better.

    For example, I take note on my computer (using OneNote) because he let me focus on the teacher more. I’m forcing myself to rephrase avoiding transcript…. I’m then able to re-read my course on my mobile phone on the train back home. I reuse my note to create flashcards on Anki also accessible on my mobile phone. All that let me use spaced repetition (4 times 10 min every day).

    When I’m learning for the exam, I’m reading my note and making extra-short resume by hand on paper (active reading).

    All that is very efficient for me, when I look around me I spend way less time learning than my colleague.

    The question is beyond digital vs analogue or typing vs handwriting. But we should not forget that at the end of the day your job is on a computer and you have to learn how to use it efficiently.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Perdristat. I agree with what you say when it comes to older learners. Someone like you, who has metacognitive awareness and who has already mastered reading, writing, note taking, and studying, is well-equipped to develop sound learning through typing.

    The average school teacher finds herself in a different situation-as most of our students are too young to have these skills and many of whom are really struggling with reading and writing. Children need to master these learning skills first in order to use technology in the way you have described.

    At the same time, with a strong foundation, our students can eventually utilize technology like you have described. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *