“A lot of positive transfer effects”

When pupils write new words by hand, they remember them better.
When pupils write new words by hand, they remember them better. | Photo (detail): © Syda Productions - Fotolia.com

Many pupils have problems with their handwriting, adults usually type everything on keyboards and Finland is phasing out cursive handwriting. When handwriting is properly taught, however, it can bring about many advantages – even for the teaching of foreign languages, says Christian Marquardt, an expert in the field of writing motor skills.

Mr Marquardt, in spite of all the digital possibilities these days, handwriting is still being taught in schools. Why?

Handwriting is a very complex activity that involves the use of several areas of the brain: it promotes the ability to spell, the ability to remember words and the ability to formulate. That is why handwriting is very important when it comes to acquiring reading and writing skills at school. Anyone who talks today about replacing it with keyboard typing has to also take into account the far-reaching consequences this would have for other learning processes. Handwriting should not be up for discussion, just because it entails a few problems.

What are these problems?

According to a survey conducted among teachers by the “Schreibmotorik Institut” in cooperation with the German Teachers' Association in 2015, half of all boys and one third of all girls have serious problems with handwriting. Their writing is cramped and illegible, they work too slowly and get tired quickly. The aim set out in the school syllabus – the acquisition of readable and fluent handwriting – is not achieved.

For what reasons do many children have difficulties writing legibly and fluently?

Dr. Christian Marquardt Dr. Christian Marquardt | Photo (detail): © Schreibmotorik Institut The writing problems they have are usually linked to motor skills problems. That is why this should be given more attention right from the outset. Up to now, the main focus has been on the form and accuracy of the standard lettering. This, however, contradicts the principles of motor skills learning, as when children first start to learn how to write the required movements cannot be carried out exactly. It is the same when children start learning to walk, they often fall over. When learning to write, however, children should learn how to produce good handwriting by copying the letters in slow motion. However, this does not work so well, because some of the important motor skill aspects of handwriting, such as rhythm and writing flow, are neglected.

Why have motor skills for writing been neglected up to now in the classroom?

We at the Schreibmotorik Institut believe that it also has to do with the fact that learning how to write also has an educational aspect. There are rules for the children, and they should adhere to them. Many parents and teachers frown when they are told that writing motor skills must be learned more freely, that we have to allow children to experiment and try out the best way to do it. Writing is, of course, a cultural asset. There are many traditionalists who fear that handwriting will disappear if we modernise it. But the opposite is the case.

What is the difference between typing on a keyboard and writing a sentence by hand?

Typing is more a mechanical process, used to store information. Writing, on the other hand, is a more individual process that involves the writer much more in the way the content is formulated. Studies show that, when it comes to handwriting, there is an interaction between our cognitive and motor skills that leads to an improved processing of the information. Why this is the case, is certainly a question that needs to be further investigated.

Isn’t that also an interesting point for the teaching of German as a foreign language and German as a second language or for foreign language teaching in general?

Of course. We believe that in this area handwriting brings about a lot of positive transfer effects. When pupils write new words by hand, they remember them better. The more intensively the learners deal with formulations, the content and also with the grammar in handwritten form, the better the new language is anchored in the brain.

These days there is a lot of criticism in Germany about digital media being used too sparingly in the classroom, and about children having to learn to write on a keyboard. What is your stance on this?

Handwriting has great advantages in many areas, and digital writing, in turn, in others. Handwriting, however, should still take first place when it comes to reading and writing. Ways of dealing with digital media should be addressed in a completely structured way at a later date, when handwriting and all that goes with it – reading, grammar, formulation, word memory – are well developed.

Hand lettering is currently very trendy in Germany – a lot of adults practice fine writing and calligraphy. But apart from that, how does handwriting help us in our everyday lives?

Handwriting is the perfect way to structure information and ideas, to take notes, to make things more personal. I do not need an electronic device to write something, I don’t have to have to switch anything on or recharge the battery. But it also embraces a philosophical question about how we want to shape our lives – do we want to simply give up all the skills that make us human beings human, just because more and more things can be done electronically or automatically these days?

Dr. Christian Marquardt is an expert on motor skills and handwriting, and has been researching the basic motor skills required for writing for more than 25 years. He has been working as a scientific advisor on motor skills at the Schreibmotorik Institut since it was founded in 2012.