Dear Jacob and Maya,
I’m writing to share a secret. Now that you’re both teens, almost, you’re old enough to receive it.
Over the years, I’ve sent you many notebooks and pens ahead of this moment. Here’s why. The reason your aunt has always provided apparently antiquated supplies was to hook you on handwriting before teaching you the magic trick described herein.
Scribbling is the most simple, powerful learning tool you already have in your hands. It works without any understanding of what you’re writing. Just scribble and information will make itself known to you.
Seriously, scientific studies show the benefits of putting pen to paper. For example, research from Princeton University, published in Psychological Science in 2014, concluded that the pen is mightier than the keyboard for note-takers. Despite the fact that typists capture more information verbatim, the research found that adult students who hand write notes remember more long-term than those who type.
Schools in the US, many of which which stopped teaching penmanship, are putting cursive back into their curriculums, having found that handwriting still has value. Louisiana is the latest of 14 states to revive the outdated art, and students there will be learning to craft fine curves with their fingers starting this fall.
Writing demands more intellectual engagement, which seems to pay off substantively. It may be that hand writers recording selectively take in more while working. Studies of elementary school students showed that hand drafting improved essay quality. Writers expressed more complete ideas than typists covering the same topic.
The physical differences between penning and typing may help explain varied cognitive effects. When you type, you’re always making the same repeated gesture. Handwriting, however, requires a slightly different set of strokes for each letter. Those physical motions may help penned notes stick better.
Researchers at Kobe University in Japan recently discovered that handwriting may also have a rhythmic element influencing its effectiveness. A recent small study on schoolchildren learning to write found that students acquired knowledge of a stroke’s beat, its physical feel and speed, in addition to a letter’s look. This suggests there’s more to handwriting than previously imagined.
I discovered the secret powers of scribbling myself at Jake’s age (14) when I was a freshman in high school in France, studying topics like latin, chemistry, and math…in French. Small problem. I didn’t speak French. And my school administrators didn’t know this, because my mom spoke it perfectly when she signed me up for our semester abroad.
As a French professor in charge of Boston University’s study abroad students, my mom had total confidence that immersion would work for me, too. And she was right.
I passed my classes by rewriting chunks of incomprehensible text over and over at night, by hand, until somehow mysterious words and concepts made sense. It wasn’t quite studying because I didn’t really try to learn or do anything beyond writing words. My task was so daunting that I did little, and it worked like a charm. The correct answers made their way onto tests. Success!
Compared to struggling with new ideas and a strange language simultaneously, writing repetitively felt practically effortless. Getting it wasn’t immediately necessary—it was dealing that made things sink in.
Later, I used the trick to learn other languages, study the law, pass two state bar examinations, and face difficult information every day at work. All this with scribbled lists, booklets, and endless notes.
The trick relieves me of worry. I don’t have to be particularly smart to absorb information. I just get started learning, confident that discipline will help as much, if not more, than intelligence. It’s easy. If I take time and put pen to paper, my mind sorts the puzzle out for me.
You already have everything you need to succeed! Enjoying handwriting’s benefits doesn’t require great penmanship or fancy writing implements. Sloppy scribbles using anything will do. Still, I’m always happy to provide sweet writing supplies and confess to a weakness for nice notebooks myself.
Finally, if you do develop an appreciation for handwriting aesthetics, seek like-minded souls. Fanatics for fine lettering do exist. Don’t tell your parents your adoring aunt told you this, but on Reddit’s “penmanship porn” group, for example, adults lust over perfect cursive curves and post pictures with titles like, “Pleased with my ampersand.”