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MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 300
1.1 Background and motivation
Writing is an intellectual achievement distinguishing humans from conspecifics (Preiss
& Sternberg, 2005; van der Weel, 2011; Wolf, 2007). Since its invention in the 4th
millennium BC, writing has been a mode of inscription, performed using some kind of
object, tool or technology, and marking traces on a physical substrate. With
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440, manual inscription was
replaced by mechanical typewriting. Currently, more and more of our writing is done
with digital rather than mechanical writing devices, and handwriting is increasingly
marginalized. This trend is also evident in beginning writing instruction, as children are
learning to write by typing on virtual touch-screen keyboards or conventional
computer/laptop keyboards in parallel with traditional handwriting (see, e.g., Genlott &
Grönlund, 2013; Trageton, 2003), and there is an increasing emphasis on ICT (i.e.,
information and communication technologies) in the curriculum. The implications of
such a shift, on individual and cognitive as well as educational and societal levels, are
largely unknown (Kiefer & Trumpp, 2012; Mangen, 2013; Mangen & Velay, 2010,
2014; Velay & Longcamp, 2013).
The marginalization of handwriting invites a number of reflections concerning
practical and pedagogical as well as cognitive aspects of writing. We learn to write,
says Margaret Wilson (2008, p. 382), in order to be able to put our thoughts down on
paper: “For purposes of embodied cognition, this last example is perhaps most
interesting not so much in terms of its archival functions […] but for its functions in
serving as an external memory device during ongoing cognitive processing […].”
Amplifying and supporting cognition by the use of symbols, writing is a cognitive
technology par excellence (Frank, Everett, Fedorenko, & Gibson, 2008; Nickerson,
2005), “made possible by creative uses of the body.” (Wilson, 2008, p. 382) In light of
such reflections, it is worth asking if digital writing implements affect the ways in which
writing supports and amplifies cognition: Does it affect how, and how well, we
remember what we write down, if we write it by tapping keys on a keyboard rather
than by writing by hand? And, when keyboard writing, does it make a difference for our
memory if the keyboard we use is that of a laptop, or a virtual touch keyboard on an
iPad? Anecdotal evidence (Chandler, 1992; Haas, 1996; Hensher, 2012; Keim, 2013;
McCullough, 1996) suggests that handwriting engages the mind differently than writing
on a keyboard. It has yet to be empirically established in what ways, and to what
degree, such differences occur, and what the cognitive and educational implications
Influenced by the “embodied cognition” research paradigm (Calvo & Gomila, 2008)
and by studies in cognitive neuroscience comparing handwriting and keyboard writing
(Longcamp et al., 2008; Longcamp, Boucard, Gilhodes, & Velay, 2006; Longcamp,
301 | JOURNAL OF WRITING RESEARCH
Tanskanen, & Hari, 2006; Wamain, Tallet, Zanone, & Longcamp, 2012), the present
experiment intends to measure the effect of writing modality (i.e., writing by hand and
writing by [touch and mechanical] keyboard) on aspects of cognition, more
specifically, on verbal episodic memory. We address the question whether it makes a
difference for the memory of words if people have written them down by hand on
paper, on a virtual touch keyboard, or a laptop keyboard.
1.2 The haptics of writing, and the ergonomic affordances of writing
The current digitization invites a reconsideration of the nature of writing as a cognitive
and sensorimotor process. In particular, the transition from handwriting to keyboard
writing entails changes pertaining to the haptics of writing (Mangen & Velay, 2010),
that is, the combination of the (passive) sensation of touch with the active movement of
our fingers and hands during writing. Handwriting differs from keyboard writing in a
number of ways, from a physiological and ergonomic level through to cognitive and
phenomenological dimensions. Typically, we type on computer/laptop or touch screen
keyboards by using both hands (and, ideally, all ten fingers), whereas handwriting is
one of the most lateralized of bodily processes and very few master it equally well with
both hands. The beginning writer, in handwriting, also tends to use most of the
available cognitive capacity to form the individual letters, at the expense of a focus on
content. However, as the motor patterns involved in handwriting are automatized,
cognitive capacity is free to process content (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Moreover, the
coordination of manual activity and visual attention typically differs in the two writing
modalities. Skilled keyboard writers may keep their visual attention mostly on the
screen on which the text appears, whereas less skilled touch typists may direct their
gaze occasionally or mostly towards the keyboard (Johansson, Wengelin, Johansson, &
Holmqvist, 2010). During handwriting, by contrast, we typically focus our attention
very close to the tip of the pen from which the trace of text emerges. Hence, during
handwriting, visual attention and sensorimotor action are temporally and spatially
unified and contiguous (Mangen, 2013), whereas in keyboard writing, this unity is
broken. In this sense, the act of inscription may be described as more abstract and
physically detached with keyboard writing than with handwriting (Mangen, 2013).
Generally speaking, when writing with digital technologies, less precise and less
discriminating manual movements are required than when handwriting with pen or
pencil on paper (Mangen & Velay, 2014). Compared to keyboard writing, handwriting
is a more motorically controlled and monitored translation and externalization of the
writer’s message. Such differences in motor control and coordination between
handwriting and keyboard writing are perhaps most evident in the frequency of
technical errors: in handwriting, we rarely form or apply an erroneous character
(relative to the intended letter and, provided adequate grammatical skills, words),
whereas technical errors occur frequently in keyboard writing. In many respects, the
digitization of writing contributes to making the relationship between the embodied,
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 302
sensorimotor input (viz., the writing process) and the audiovisual output (viz., the
produced text) generated by the technology, more abstract and detached (Mangen &
Such differences in technological affordances notwithstanding, it is not easy to find
studies actually comparing handwriting and keyboard writing with respect to cognitive
outcomes and educational aspects. A cursory glance at the current state of writing
research (e.g., Alamargot & Chanquoy, 2001, 2012; Berninger, 2012; MacArthur,
Graham, & Fitzgerald, 2006; Torrance et al., 2012; Torrance, van Waes, & Galbraith,
2007; Van Waes, Leijten, & Neuwirth, 2006) yields the impression that writing is
mainly, if not exclusively, a mental (i.e., cognitive) process dealing with linguistic
representations at different levels. According to the most commonly referenced model
in cognitively oriented writing research (Flower & Hayes, 1981), writing is a process
primarily involving planning (i.e., developing the writing plan and setting goals),
translating (i.e., converting the plan into text), and reviewing (i.e., text reading and
editing). Recent empirical research has revealed that writing is also an activity involving
visuospatial dimensions (Olive & Passerault, 2012), in that composing a text is a
visuospatial activity resting to a large extent on the visuospatial processes of working
When the act of writing is digitized, and we go from shaping signs, letters and
words with pen-in-hand on the substrate of paper, to generating texts by tapping ready-
mades on a variety of keyboards, it becomes apparent that writing is also a
sensorimotor, tool-mediated activity entailing the dexterous use of writing implements
(e.g., pens, pencils, keyboards, digital styluses) and writing surfaces (e.g., paper,
cardboard, screens). These implements, as well as the writing surfaces, have distinct
ergonomic – in particular, haptic – affordances which may influence cognitive aspects
at different levels. Hence, the ergonomic aspects of writing merit closer scrutiny, and
the embodied cognition paradigm may be particularly relevant for this purpose.
2. Theoretical framework
2.1 Embodied cognition
Viewed in light of the embodied cognition paradigm, it is reasonable to assume that
replacing handwriting with keyboard writing may have implications on several levels,
from basic perceptuo-motor processing to higher-level cognitive processes (Kiefer &
Trumpp, 2012; Mangen, 2013; Mangen & Velay, 2010). The view that cognition takes
place not only in a central system (Fodor, 1983) or a representation- or symbol-
processing unit (Clark, 1997, 2008), but fundamentally in the perceptual and motor
systems, has gained traction and is a prominent perspective in cognitive science (Calvo
& Gomila, 2008). More precisely, embodied cognition implies that processes of
perception (visual, audio, tactile), motor action, and cognition are more closely and
reciprocally connected than has typically been acknowledged (cf., e.g., Gibbs, 2005;
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Shapiro, 2010; Wilson, 2002). Theories of embodiment have received increasing
empirical support from behavioral and neuroscientific studies (for an overview, see
Kiefer & Barsalou, 2011), suggesting that cognitive processes are fundamentally based
on a reinstatement of external (perception) and internal (proprioception, emotion and
introspection) as well as bodily actions that produce simulations of previous
experiences (Kiefer & Trumpp, 2012).
A number of theoretical contributions from adjacent fields can be subsumed under
the heading of embodied cognition. For the present purposes, the most relevant cluster
consists of motor theories of perception. Initially developed for the perception of
spoken language by Liberman et al. (Liberman & Mattingly, 1985), motor theories of
perception indicate that we mentally simulate movement and actions even though we
only see (or only hear, or only touch) them. Research data from cognitive neuroscience
and neurophysiology (Fogassi & Gallese, 2004; Jensenius, 2008; Olivier & Velay, 2009)
show how motor areas in the brain (e.g., premotor and parietal area; Broca’s area) are
activated when subjects are watching someone else performing an action, and when
they are watching images of tools requiring certain actions (e.g., a hammer, a pair of
scissors, a pen) (Chao & Martin, 2000), even when no action or movement is required
from the subjects themselves. Motor theories of perception hence support the view that
human cognition is "sandwiched" between perception as input from the world to the
mind, and action as output from the mind to the external environment - also called an
"action-perception loop", and demonstrating underlying motor-perceptual links.
Object perception is perhaps the domain in which the greatest number of examples
of functional links between action and perception have been documented, and in
which the notion of embodied cognition is most obvious (Velay & Longcamp, 2013).
Although alphabetic characters are not physical objects, motor-perceptual links can be
assumed to contribute to their representation, since they are associated with highly
specific handwriting movements. These movements entail producing a graphic form as
close as possible to the corresponding visual model. Handwriting movements are thus
associated with consistent spatial information about a letter. In addition, they are
governed by very strict spatial and temporal rules, which Goodnow and Levine (1973)
described as the “grammar of action” (Velay & Longcamp, 2013).
The particular relevance of such mental simulations of movement to the present
experiment pertains to the trace of movement intrinsic to anything written by hand.
Calling handwritten script an “imprint of action,” Longcamp et al. (2006) point to the
rather striking fact that we are usually able to recognize handwriting accurately despite
the extreme variability from one writer to another: “Several psychophysical studies have
demonstrated a striking ability of the perceptual system to reliably extract production-
related information from the graphic trace […].” (Longcamp, Tanskanen, et al., 2006, p.
681) This is evidence to suggest that we apply knowledge about the implicit motor
rules involved in writing by hand, during the perception of the handwritten traces.
To summarize, the shaping of letters and words involved in handwriting involve
distinct kinesthetic processes that differ markedly from the kinesthesia involved in
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 304
tapping keys on a keyboard. In light of this fact, a continued marginalization of
handwriting can be expected to have considerable cognitive, educational and cultural
implications, on an individual as well as on a societal level.
2.2 Handwriting and keyboard writing; relationship to word memory
As evidenced by research on writing and drawing in neuroscience and, more
specifically, graphonomics, writing is a process requiring the integration of visual,
proprioceptive (i.e., haptic/kinesthetic), and tactile information (Fogassi & Gallese,
2004). The acquisition of handwriting skills involves a perceptual component (learning
the shape of the letter) and a graphomotor component (learning the trajectory
producing the letter’s shape) (Van Galen, 1991). Sensory modalities involved in
handwriting (viz., vision and proprioception) are so intimately entwined that clear
neural network activation pattern similarities have been revealed between perceiving,
reading, and writing letters in different languages and writing systems, e.g., comparing
logosyllabic systems (e.g., Chinese), Japanese ideograms, and alphabet systems (Kato et
al., 1999; Longcamp, Anton, Roth, & Velay, 2003, 2005; Van Galen, 1991). Brain
imaging techniques have shown how neural networks can be differentially activated
from processing different writing systems: logosyllabic writing systems seem to activate
very distinctive parts of the frontal and temporal areas of the brain, particularly regions
involved in what is called motor perception (Chen, Fu, Iversen, Smith, & Matthews,
The motor component, in particular, seems to play a fundamental role during
handwriting (Longcamp, Tanskanen, et al., 2006; Velay & Longcamp, 2013).
Experimental data in neuroscience provide further support for this claim. There is
evidence that writing movements are involved in letter memorization. For instance,
repeated writing by hand is an aid that is commonly used in school to help Japanese
children memorize kanji characters (Naka & Naoi, 1995). In the same vein, Japanese
adults report that they often write with their finger in the air to identify and mentally
retrieve the meaning of complex characters. This is, moreover, a well-known
phenomenon in Japan, commonly referred to as “kuusho” (Cibulka, 2013; Sasaki,
1987). It has also been reported that learning by handwriting facilitates subjects’
memorization of graphic forms (Naka & Naoi, 1995).
On a day to day basis, we write for a number of different purposes, and in a variety
of situations. One of the main purposes of writing is mnemonic – that is, we write in
order to remember something (e.g., shopping lists; note taking during reading or
lectures; post-it notes). Considering this role of writing, the effect of writing modality on
memory is a topic warranting systematic empirical scrutiny. The present study was
designed to measure the effect of writing modality (i.e., writing by hand with pen on
paper, writing with a laptop keyboard, or writing with a virtual touch-screen keyboard)
on verbal memory for material written by the subjects themselves.
When writing shopping lists, taking notes during meetings and lectures, and note
taking when study reading, people increasingly use mobile, handheld digital touch-
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screen technologies such as tablets and smart phones rather than conventional
computers and laptops. Touch-screen (or virtual) keyboards differ from conventional
computer and laptop keyboards, in particular with respect to the tactile and haptic
feedback. More specifically, a computer keyboard provides a more sensorially salient
tactile and haptic feedback than a touch-screen keyboard, where such information is
reduced to the (optional) slight vibration enabled by force feedback and where,
furthermore, there are no tactilely felt borders (or edges) between individual keys. For
this reason, and in order to enhance the ecological validity of the study, we decided on
three writing modalities in a within-subjects design, viz., handwriting with ballpoint
pen on paper, keyboard writing with a laptop computer, and keyboard writing with an
iPad touch keyboard.
A number of studies, notably in neuroscience, have investigated the effect of writing
modality (handwriting and keyboard writing) on aspects of retention, recognition and
recall. In two behavioral studies, Longcamp et al. compared memory for letters learned
by handwriting and by keyboard writing, one in children (Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou,
& Velay, 2005) and one in adults (Longcamp, Boucard, et al., 2006). In both studies,
participants who had learned to write by hand showed better subsequent memory and
visual recognition than those in the keyboard writing condition. Longcamp et al.
replicated these studies in a neuroimaging study (Longcamp et al., 2008), in which
fMRI data showed that processing the orientation of handwritten and typed characters
did not rely on the same brain areas. More specifically, the brain activation of
participants in the handwriting condition was more pronounced in several regions
known to be involved in the imagery, observation, and execution of actions, more
precisely the left Broca’s area and bilateral inferior parietal lobules (Longcamp et al.,
2008). These findings suggest that the sensorimotor movements entailed in writing by
hand may contribute to the subsequent memorization of the shape and/or orientation of
characters (Longcamp, Tanskanen, et al., 2006; Mangen & Velay, 2010).
These findings all relate to memorization of single letters or characters. Arguably,
memory for single letters may be said to have limited ecological relevance for many
everyday purposes of writing related to functional memory or learning outcomes. To
our knowledge, only one study, Smoker et al. (2009), has extended this line of research
to examining potential associations between writing modalities and memory at the
word level. Smoker et al. (2009) report findings from a small study comparing recall
and recognition of words, depending on whether they had been written down by hand
or typed on a computer keyboard. In their experiment, sixty-one adults participated in a
between-subjects experiment measuring the effect of writing modality on word
recognition and recall. The two writing modalities were handwriting with pen on paper,
and the keyboard condition was a conventional computer keyboard. Participants in
both conditions were presented, visually, the same words (taken from the sixth grade
Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), on a printout in the handwriting
condition, and on the left hand side in the computer condition. They were instructed to
copy the words by writing them down next to the words listed, either on the paper or
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 306
on the computer. There was no time constraint, and time on task was recorded. After
being presented the stimuli, a distractor task was administered. Once the distractor task
was completed, participants were asked to recall, within the span of five minutes, as
many words as they could remember by writing them down onto a blank sheet of
paper. Upon completion of the recall task, participants were asked to complete a
recognition task containing a mix of stimuli words and new words from the same FCAT
vocabulary. The recognition task was also limited to five minutes.
Results from the Smoker et al. (2009) study showed that memory on the recall task
approached significance in favor of the handwritten words, and the effect of writing
modality was significant in the recognition task. On the basis of these findings, Smoker
et al. (2009) conclude that the results support the hypothesis that due to additional
kinesthetic information provided by handwriting, subjects tend to remember words
better when they have written them by hand than when they have written them by
The present experiment is in part a replication of Smoker et al.’s (2009) study, but as
a completely counterbalanced within-subjects design. We address the question of
whether people remember words written as parts of lists better when they are written by
hand than when they are typed using a virtual touch keyboard, or a mechanical laptop
keyboard. More specifically, the present experiment was designed to test the following
H1: Our first hypothesis was that we would observe superior free recall of words
written by hand as compared to on a physical laptop keyboard and a virtual
keyboard on an Apple iPad.
H2: We also expected that results on the word recognition measure would differ
as a function of writing modality, more specifically, that participants would
recognize more words that they had written by hand, compared with words
they had written on the computer or iPad keyboard.
3.1 Ethics statement
The project was approved by the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD), and
all participants gave informed written consent in accordance with the requirements of
the NSD prior to participating in the study.
3.2 Participants and design
The present study was a within-subjects experimental design with three different writing
conditions for each participant. Thirty-six female college students or staff at a middle-
sized Norwegian university participated. Participants were required to have Norwegian
as their first language. All reported to have normal sight and hearing as well as no
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literacy impairments. Three subjects reported being left-handed and 13 described
themselves as being “touch-typists”. A power analysis showed that the power to detect
a medium effect-size (f = 0.25) was 0.9, given 36 subjects in a repeated measures
design with three conditions.
In Table 1, we show descriptive statistics for age, education, typing speed (words
per minute) on a conventional keyboard, years of experience with keyboard and years
of experience with using touch-screens:
Table 1. Demographics, writing experience and writing skill
Mean (SD) Max, min Median
Age 25.22 (7.98) 54, 18 22
Education 15.81 (2.70) 22, 12 15
Years of experience with keyboards 12.97 (6.19) 35, 4 12
Years of experience with touchscreens 0.89 (1.04) 3, 0 1
Age when started with keyboard writing 12.25 (5.32) 23, 3 12
Keyboard words per minute 61.00 (21.12) 118, 26 59
In order to measure the effect of writing modality on a central cognitive outcome, we
used a word list paradigm. Word list learning is a well-established paradigm in
cognitive psychology, commonly used to measure episodic verbal memory (Tulving,
2002), a form of verbal, consciously accessible memory for elements related to events
(Mayes & Roberts, 2001). Such memory is conceptualized as a multi-component
process, involving stages such as the encoding, or learning of new information, the
retention (storage) of what was encoded and, finally, the retrieval or recognition of what
was being encoded and stored (Mayes & Roberts, 2001). Asking subjects to freely recall
the contents of a previously learned/encoded and stored word-list involves retrieval
processes that put higher demands on attentional resources than if subjects are shown
previously learned words vs. new words and being asked if it was old/new (Naveh-
Benjamin, Craik, Guez, & Dori, 1998). Further, differences in strategy use during
encoding can differently affect retrieval vs. recognition (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).
Thus, in order to investigate the role of retrieval processes on memory as related to list-
learning during different forms of writing, this study included measures of both word
recognition and free recall.
Three word lists were used for the listening-writing task. Each list consisted of 28
semantically related words, falling into three discernible semantic sub-categories. Main
themes for the lists were (1) action verbs (sample item: “paint”), (2) animals (sample
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 308
item: “dog”) and (3) food (sample item: “avocado”). Each word list contained the same
number of one-, two- and three-syllable or longer words. Word lists were recorded
digitally and edited with a 6 sec. pause between each word (sound offset to onset),
leaving each list to last approximately 3 minutes. Each recognition checklist consisted
of all 28 target words as well as 28 distractor words approximately matched for length
and complexity. The order of each checklist was randomized.
A Dell laptop was used to play auditory recordings of the three different word-lists,
using a pair of KOSS SB/45 headphones.
A first generation iPad running IOS 4 and its standard notepad software with the
default font type and size was used to provide a touch technology keyboard. A Dell
laptop with a full-size keyboard was used for the physical keyboard condition, with
participants writing in the Windows XP Notepad application with the window
maximized and using the standard Lucida Console 10 point font. For the handwriting
condition, a blue-ink regular ball pen was used alongside an A4 notepad.
A digital video camera with internal microphone mounted on a stationary tripod
was used to record each session to allow for examination of recall sessions.
In the experiment, subjects were required to use handwriting, a physical laptop
keyboard and an iPad virtual touch keyboard, each to write down a different word list.
At the beginning of the session, participants were provided with a pair of headphones.
They were informed that they were going to listen to a series of words that would be
read aloud to them. They were informed that they were to write down each word, one
by one, immediately after hearing the word. This same procedure was repeated for all
three conditions. Participants were told that they would be asked to recall as many
words as possible having finished writing down all the words in a particular list. There
was no instruction on whether or not to organize the written words to enhance memory
and recall, but upon request, participants were informed that they were free to, e.g.,
create line breaks for each new word or organize words into columns or clusters while
A pre-recorded list of words was then played back through headphones and
participants were required to write down the words using the designated writing device.
Having written down all the words from the list currently being read to the participant,
the word list produced by the participant was put aside, and participants were
immediately asked to recall as many words as possible. Each listening-writing session
was followed by a recognition test in which a lab assistant read out a list of target and
distractor words, the participants being asked to indicate whether or not each word had
been present in their written-down list. The order of both writing technologies and
word lists were fully counterbalanced across subjects.
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In the physical keyboard and handwriting conditions, participants were asked to seat
themselves comfortably in front of the laptop and notepad. For the iPad condition,
participants were handed the tablet, and could choose to either keep it on their lap or
to put it on the desk in front of them. Participants were asked to orally recite all words
they could remember in the free recall condition. Unlimited time was given for
participants to recall words, and they were asked to notify the experimenter when they
thought no more words could be recalled. The words recalled, as well as the order in
which these words were recalled, were recorded, alongside any intrusions (words not
in the list).
In the recognition condition, the experimenter read out loud to the participant the
list of targets and distractors for that particular condition, asking the participant to
indicate with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ whether they thought each word was included among
those they had written down. On finishing this task, the subject repeated the whole
procedure for the two remaining writing technology conditions.
Finally, following the completion of all three conditions, participants were asked to
complete a speed typing test (found at http://norwegian-speedtest.10-fast-fingers.com)
to measure keyboard writing speed and to assess whether they were touch typists. They
were also asked to indicate their keyboard writing experience by stating the number of
years they had been using keyboards and touch-screen technology.
In order to assess recognition memory performance, we calculated d’ (d-prime) which
is based on a signal-detection approach for estimating discrimination performance
where the proportion of recognition hits is balanced according to the proportion of
false positives (Macmillan & Creelman, 2005).
The one-sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov test was applied to assess whether the data
was normally-distributed. Several variables showed a statistically significant departure
from normality according to the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test: The d’ measure of
recognition in handwriting condition, was negatively skewed (p=.001; skewness: -
1.02), word-recall in the keyboard condition showed a flattened distribution (p=.026;
kurtosis: -0.723) and the data from the Pad condition was right-skewed (p=.001;
skewness: 0.721). Hence, non-parametric statistics were used throughout.
Omnibus analyses of differences between ranks in the groups for free recall and
recognition were analyzed with Friedman’s related samples analysis of variance.
Planned follow-ups were conducted using paired comparisons with the related samples
Wilcoxon test. Effect-sizes (r) were calculated as described in Rosenthal (Rosenthal,
1991) by dividing the z-scores with the square root of N. Non-parametric Spearman
rank-order correlations between memory performance, typing speed, experience with
keyboard use and touch-screen technology were also conducted. Finally, differences in
memory performance as related to being a touch-typist, were assessed using the non-
parametric Mann-Whitney U test. Data analysis was carried out using SPSS 22.
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 310
In Table 2 , we show descriptive statistics for free recall and recognition in the three
different writing modalities:
Table 2: Performance
Free recall Recognition (d’)
Mean (sd) Median Mean (sd) Median
Handwriting 15.33 (4.67) 15.0 2.91 (0.56) 3.04
Keyboard 13.89 (3.64) 13.0 2.78 (0.51) 2.79
iPad 13.64 (4.54) 12.5 2.67 (0.78) 2.72
sd: standard deviation;
The only statistically significant omnibus group-difference was found for free recall,
p<.049. The follow-up analyses showed that free recall was better in the handwriting
condition than in both the keyboard (p = .024, r = .37) and the iPad (p = .050, r = .32)
condition. Both of these effect-sizes (r) are considered medium (Cohen, 1988). There
were no other statistically significant findings, nor any trends towards significance.
To investigate whether keyboard or touch technology skill/experience was related
to the free recall effect, we used non-parametric (Spearman) rank-order correlation
analyses between free recall for word-lists written on keyboard or iPad with the
respective relevant variables. We found that recall for lists written on the iPad touch
screen was positively correlated with years of experience with touch-screens (rho =
.329, p = .050). There was no relationship between recall for lists written on the
conventional keyboard and years of experience with keyboards (rho = -.070, p = .686),
with keyboard writing speed (rho = -.049, p = .785), or with age when first learning
keyboard writing (rho = .115, p = .504). Nor was there any difference of recall for
words written on the keyboard for touch-typists (N = 13) vs non-touch typists (N = 23)
(Mann-Whitney U = 138, p = .721).
The results show that handwriting is associated with better free recall of written material
as compared to material written using conventional keyboards on PCs and virtual
keyboards such as those on iPads. This is in support of hypothesis 1 (H1) of the study.
We did not find support for our second hypothesis (H2) related to recognition memory,
in that there was no difference between writing modalities with respect to word
recognition. Thus, our results are incompatible with a simple notion that keyboard
writing per se (whether on a virtual or a conventional keyboard) attenuates or disrupts
memory for what is written. However, with respect to aspects of word recall, our
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findings indicate that there may be certain cognitive benefits to handwriting which may
not be fully retained in keyboard writing. The partly exploratory nature of the present
study precludes a confident explanation of the observed pattern; however, and building
on relevant empirical and theoretical research on similar aspects of writing, below are
some speculations intending to shed at least partial light on our findings. As such, they
may also serve as a framework for future studies.
Firstly, our findings only partly replicate those of Smoker et al. (2009) in showing
that writing modality affects episodic memory, but in the Smoker study, the effects of
modality were significant only for the recognition measure, and only bordering on
significance for the recall measure. Moreover, in the present study, the follow-up
analyses indicated that the iPad-related memory recall performance was related to
years of experience with touch-screens, but there was no effect of skill or experience
with conventional keyboards regarding recall for word lists written on such keyboards.
The positive correlation between lists written on the iPad touch keyboard and years of
experience with touch keyboards is an indication that participants’ degree of
automaticity may have played a role, but only in the touch keyboard input mode. In
our study, all participants had quite extensive (minimum four years) experience with
writing on conventional (laptop) keyboards, while several reported having less than one
year of experience with virtual keyboards. The limited proficiency in using virtual
keyboards may, in other words, have contributed to this result. Additionally, the fact
that there was an effect of experience in the touch screen keyboard but not in the
conventional keyboard condition, may perhaps be related to cognitive load in that
proficiency in touch keyboard writing may have allowed participants to rehearse
(orally; silently) previous words. In contrast to conventional keyboards, on a touch
keyboard spatial distribution of keys and their boundaries are merely virtual and,
hence, provide no tactile feedback which can support discrimination between keys. In
addition, touch keyboards often provide force feedback (in the form of vibration). In
terms of cognitive load, it may be the case that familiarization and experience with a
virtual keyboard providing force feedback may play a greater role in contributing to
automaticity of skill and correspondingly reduced cognitive load, than automaticity
with conventional, physical, keyboards.
However, caution is warranted when interpreting these results; more empirical
research comparing effects of different kinds of keyboards on cognitive outcomes will
help to better understand the potential impact of haptic and tactile affordances of
different keyboards, on sensorimotor and cognitive processes during writing.
Addressing more precisely the mechanisms involved, future studies in writing should try
to disentangle the specific associations between cognitive processing, perhaps in
particular cognitive load, sensorimotor affordances of input mode (i.e., writing
modality), and aspects of cognitive outcomes.
Although our results do not provide support for H2, there are several possible
reasons why we found that participants had better free recall for the words they had
written by hand on paper, than for the words they had typed on a laptop or on an iPad
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 312
keyboard. One potential explanation pertains to the different kinds of
sensorimotor/graphomotor processes involved in writing by hand versus writing on a
keyboard. In handwriting, the writer has to graphomotorically form each letter from
scratch – i.e., produce a graphic shape resembling as much as possible the standard
shape of the specific letter. The graphomotor processes in the handwriting condition in
our experiment may have facilitated a richer encoding of the words into long-term
memory, resulting in better retrieval as evidenced in the free recall measure. This
finding is partly consistent with Smoker et al. (Smoker et al., 2009), who found
participants in the handwriting condition performed better than people in the keyboard
writing condition. However, whereas in the present study, the difference between
writing modalities in favor of handwriting was more pronounced for the free recall
measure and there was no significant difference for the recognition measure, the results
of Smoker et al. (2009) showed an inverse pattern: using one-way ANOVA to test if
memory was better for handwriting versus typing resulted in the finding that memory on
the recall task approached significance for handwritten words whereas it was
significant in the recognition task (see their table 1 for details). Together, these results
may be taken as indications that the embodied nature of handwriting may contribute to
improve certain aspects of memory. The kinesthesia entailed in the sensorimotor
process of shaping the words by hand may underlie, and contribute to, a more solid
memory trace, in turn positively affecting recall. This does not, however, explain why,
in the present experiment, there was no difference between handwriting and keyboard
writing for the recognition measure.
Another possible explanation for the superior free recall of words written by hand
on paper may be related to visual feedback or, more precisely, the ways in which
writing by hand and writing by keyboard differently relate and combine sensorimotor
input (viz., the [physical] act of writing) and the visual feedback resulting from this
input. When writing by hand on paper (or any other material substrate), the target of
visual attention typically coincides both temporally and spatially with the locus of
inscription, i.e., the tip of the pen on the substrate. Hence, during handwriting, there is
a spatiotemporal contiguity between sensory and motor action and (audio)visual output
– the “imprint of action” (Longcamp, Tanskanen, et al., 2006). Such a unity of haptic,
tactile and audiovisual information in space and time may plausibly contribute to an
enriched cognitive processing, subsequently enhancing aspects of memory and recall.
When writing on a keyboard, and depending on the automaticity or skill of typing,
writers may oscillate between focusing their visual attention on the keyboard (and,
hence, receiving visual input from the characters on the keys) and the screen. If they are
proficient keyboard writers, visual attention is predominantly on the screen, that is, at a
location which is spatiotemporally distinct from the “motor area” (i.e., the keyboard).
Hence, one can argue that (skilled) keyboard writers receive visual feedback about their
haptic and tactile input which is different in kind as well as degree from that provided
when writing by hand. While this may have an effect on certain cognitive measures,
resulting in a less solid mental representation of letters and (possibly) words, it could
313 | JOURNAL OF WRITING RESEARCH
also be argued that dissociations between the motor area (keyboard) and the visual
manifestation of the sensorimotor input (the screen) could lead to a stronger mental
representation due to there being less spatial information competition. Either way, these
speculations fall short of explaining why the benefit of handwriting was found only in
performance on the free recall measure but not the word recognition measure.
Another visual aspect may be worth mentioning. The visual attention of keyboard
writers is split between looking at the emerging text and looking at the keyboard on
which they write. From a visual-spatial perspective, a keyboard separates the “motor
area” (or input area) where the letters are being produced (the keyboard) from the visual
presentation area of the letters (the screen; or output area). A keyboard thereby provides
less real-time sensory and visual information about the writer’s own writing process, a
fact which may result in less robust mental representations of the words. One
consequence of such a separation may be that the writer engages less with the written
text and consequently is provided with an attenuated visual memory of the word, than
in the handwriting condition, where the subject may fixate near the point where the
physical writing takes place.
However, people differ in how much they look at the keyboard when writing. Some
are expert typists who spend very little time looking at the keyboard during writing,
whereas others allocate most of their visual attention to the keyboard rather than to the
text, due to lack of touch type training, or they perform frequent oscillations between
looking at the keyboard and looking at the screen. In our experiment, we investigated
this indirectly, and found no relationship between being a self-reported “touch typist”
and free recall. This weakens the plausibility of visual feedback as an explanation for
our findings. Future research could help clarify this issue by utilizing eye movement
recording in order to determine the effect of visual feedback on retention and recall.
A final aspect to be considered is the fact that participants in the current experiment
were adults, and experienced writers in both modalities. Moreover, most of them
learned how to write by handwriting, and not by keyboard writing. Today, this situation
is changing and in some schools, beginning writing instruction occurs digitally in
addition to, or instead of, writing by hand. Equally, an increasing amount of children’s
out-of-school writing is performed with keyboards rather than putting pencils to paper.
The question begs itself whether, in a study like the present one, having participants
who were “keyboard-first” writers would have yielded different results. Although
research on this topic is still sparse, particularly with respect to longitudinal studies of
children whose language and writing system resembles that of the present study (i.e.,
Norwegian), some relevant observations can be found in research with Chinese
children. In China, children now increasingly learn to use electronic devices based on
the pinyin, and not the logographic, written Chinese. Pinyin associates the phonemes
and English characters without relating to the visuographic characteristics of
logographic Chinese. Tan et al. (2013) hypothesized that this might negatively affect
Chinese children’s reading abilities. Testing character reading ability and pinyin use in
primary school children in three Chinese cities, the authors found that the overall
MANGEN ET AL. HANDWRITING AND KEYBOARD WRITING | 314
incident rate of severe reading difficulty seemed much higher than previously reported,
and also that children’s reading scores were significantly negatively correlated with
their use of the pinyin input method. These results are indications that Chinese
children’s reading performance significantly decreases with the use of digital writing
tools in combination with the pinyin input method: “Pinyin typing appears to be
harmful in itself; it interferes with Chinese reading acquisition, which is characterized
by fine-grained analysis of visuographic properties of characters. Handwriting,
however, enhances children’s reading ability.” (Tan et al., 2013, p. 1122) One can
assume that using a keyboard instead of handwriting may have a greater effect on
Chinese children’s character recognition ability than that of children learning an
alphabetic language due to the fact that the former requires more sophisticated and
elaborate visuo-spatial mapping and more repetitions than the more straightforward
correspondence of the latter. An intriguing question is whether replacing handwriting
with keyboard writing for children whose language system is alphabetic rather than
logographic will yield the same results.
6. Conclusion, limitations, and future perspectives
There are several limitations in the present study. The lack of differences in the
recognition condition could be due to a ceiling effect. This ceiling effect was most
pronounced in the handwriting condition as shown by a negative skewness of -1.02,
and this may have masked real differences in recognition across the different
modalities. The ceiling-effect implies reduced statistical power to detect real
differences, as the ceiling effect will mask such differences and reduce the effect-size;
the use of non-parametric statistics will further reduce the statistical power. Another
limitation is that the study only manipulated the encoding conditions regarding
modality. Hence, we did not explore the encoding specificity principle regarding
compatibility between the encoding and retrieval conditions, but rather assessed all
memory performance by oral report, which was not used during encoding (i.e. no oral
recital of the stimuli). Thus, the study does not explore situations where recall or
recognition is mediated by different modalities as related to encoding. Visual feedback,
i.e., memorizing the words by looking at the growing list of words written down, may
have influenced our findings. One may assume that the participant in the two keyboard
writing conditions would have had more time available to visually memorize their lists,
than when writing in the handwriting condition (where the writing process takes longer,
hence leaving less time for visual memorization of written words). We did not control
for “time on task”; hence, this is an issue to be investigated in future research. Further,
the participants in the current experiment were adults who were experienced writers in
both modalities. Our findings are therefore not necessarily applicable to children and
beginning writers, neither for handwriting nor for keyboard writing. Equally, we do not
know how this experiment would have turned out in a group who first learned to write
using a keyboard rather than writing by hand. Another possible problem in our study is
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that we did not control for spatial organization when subjects wrote down the lists, and
the different modalities offer different affordances in this regard. However, only one
subject grouped words spatially according to semantics when writing. All others wrote
one word on each line. Finally, since all recall procedures were performed immediately
following the encoding of the material, there may be effects of working memory at the
time of recall.
The ongoing digitization of the process of writing mandates acknowledging the
importance of the changing affordances of the writing devices, as well as of the
substrates on which the writing occur (e.g., paper vs. screens). Writing is a (visuo-
)cognitive and linguistic act, but it is also a tool-mediated skill requiring dexterous
finger and hand movements, in intricate interrelations with attention, perception and
cognition. The process of writing by hand by means of writing implements such as a
ballpoint pen and paper is sensorimotorically and kinesthetically different from the
process of writing by tapping keys on a keyboard. The findings of the current
experiment point to the importance of considering the role of the sensorimotor and
kinesthetic processes involved in writing, as these differ substantially during
handwriting and keyboard writing. Our finding that subjects had better free recall of the
words that they had written by hand, compared to both the iPad touch keyboard and
the laptop keyboard conditions, can be read as an indication of the importance of
considering the embodied nature of writing and how different technologies might
differently affect cognitive outcomes.
In order to assess the impact of digital technologies on cognitive aspects of writing,
more empirical investigations are warranted. Our findings reveal the importance of
considering the impact of material and ergonomic features of the writing technologies
and, in particular, the relations between sensorimotor execution, psychological
processes and cognitive outcome of writing in different modalities. There is nothing in
the study reported here to indicate whether such differences are transitory and that the
better performance found in the handwriting condition in this study is due to the fact
that participants have grown up learning to write by using pen and paper rather than
keyboards. More empirical studies, in particular longitudinal research involving
children and young adults, are required to shed light on whether and to what extent
this is a generational issue, or whether something more fundamental and less time-
bound and generation-specific is at stake.
The authors thank Anne Håland, University of Stavanger, for valuable input during the
preparatory phase of this study, and feedback and suggestions from anonymous
reviewers contributing to improving the quality of the article.
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