What is handwriting good for?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

What is handwriting good for, in the Cyber Age? How can a pen or pencil, the latter which is, basically, a pointed stick, with a graphite core (no, it has not been lead for a long time), wielded in prescribed sequences of motions, compete with the simple tap-tap-tap of a keyboard? How could twenty-first-century cutting-edge creative multitasking and knowledge workers even bother with anything so archaic? It is a bit like NASA spending millions to develop a pen that would be capable to write in zero gravity while the Soviet Union used what already existed and work in space, the pencil.

The answer as to why you may want to grab a pen or pencil is just in for computer interface researchers have been studying what happens to work speed for everyday data entry and content creation tasks (called “walking while working” tasks) as workers use various forms of input: keyboard input (on the screen of a tablet or a hardware keyboard) versus handwritten input (handwriting on the screen of a tablet or on paper).

In comparative speed tests involving such everyday workplace tasks – where workers must read and think and write (and, often, walk and talk) all at the same time – the speed of accurate work when workers used onscreen handwriting averaged 33 accurate words per minute (wpm), with individual performance ranging from a low of 24 wpm to a high of 35 wpm. When workers used a tablet's onscreen keyboard instead, speed for completion of accurate work plummeted to 14 wpm, with a range from 10 to 24 wpm.

Tests were also carried out on other kind of devices and methods, such as “swipe”-style keyboarding: tablet software to speed work by letting fingers remain onscreen between letters. Gains were unimpressive – “swiping” workers averaged 19 wpm, with a range from 10 wpm (again) to 29 wpm.

The slowest onscreen handwriter finished work faster than the fastest onscreen keyboarder or onscreen “swiper” writer.

With hardware keyboards, the average speed of accurate work was 24 wpm, with a range from 20 wpm to 27 wpm, but even here the fastest keyboarder, using the fastest keyboard, still worked more slowly than the average person writing by hand.

Even more dramatic results appeared when the researchers had their subjects put down their tablets, put down their keyboards, and work on paper with pen or pencil. Handwritten work done on paper reached an average speed of 44 wpm for accurate work, with a range from 27 wpm to 55 wpm. In other words: Those who worked with paper and pen or pencil in hand completed work faster than those working in any other way.

The slowest person writing by hand, using paper and pen or pencil to take down data or ideas on the fly, worked as rapidly as the fastest keyboard user.

With handwriting on paper, average speed of data input tasks and creative work was significantly faster than with the next fastest input method which was handwriting onscreen.

Other research has also shown that students, for instance, who write by hand, using pen and paper (or even pencil and paper) take in more from a lesson that those who use a computer keyboard of whatever kind.

And still there are education authorities and entire countries even who want to do away with handwriting altogether, not just cursive writing, what is also sometimes called joint-up writing, and many try telling us that pen and paper or pencil and paper are dead in the age of the computer. I do not think so. And I believe that it to be foolhardy in the extreme to do away with teaching children to write by hand.

© 2016