Teachers' Hub

The magazine to cross ideas in early childhood education

Manual writing at school in the digital age

01 June/2018

And digital writing?


For Velay (2017, opcit ), the advantage granted to handwriting for spelling excludes keyboarding: "This quality is not present in the practice of digital writing." Although mastery of computerized tools is essential, and in addition, they can be very interesting for children in great difficulty, the question of their use concerns teachers and researchers, with regards to the time spent by children in front of screens, but also to their consequences on school learning. One can indeed wonder if the cognitive processes required for learning would be efficiently and durably mobilized.


There is also the question of the possible repercussions of the possible total abandonment of handwriting for the adoption of a keyboard script. In addition to a possible impoverishment of fine motor skills (but it is exercised in many other areas than the written word, insofar as we can encourage these: drawings, visual arts, music and various daily manipulations) is the cognitive functioning that could be disturbed. For Velay (2017, opcit ): "If you learn to write directly using both hands when you're little, this will lead to a new distribution of language processes on both hemispheres when we were usually on one part, in a uni-manual operation. This will upset some of the methods that require concentration and memorization (...). The issue that really concerns us on our side is the use of digital technology for the fundamental learning of reading, writing and arithmetic."


Indeed, the keyboard drastically modifies the gesture of writing and its sensorimotor correlates. With handwriting, each letter corresponds to a specific movement, whether script or cursive. Keyboard writing also involves manual motor skills, but the movements performed are very different, it is simply to reach keys, which can be done with any hand, any finger. There is no privileged relationship between a letter and the gesture whereas there is one for the cursive. But it is still too early to grasp all the consequences of intensive or exclusive use of the keyboard, which implies the development of research in this area.


In contrast to these concerns, the Academy of Sciences1 gives a very optimistic picture of the possible neuronal change: "All indications are that by its adaptability; the brain will integrate these recent digital tools in its neuro-cultural circuits, as in the past, it integrated the reading and the writing (...) it is thus in terms of setting up new "cultural tours", Of universal technological footprint, that must be conceived the appropriation by the human brain of digital tools and television screens, videos, computers, smartphones , touch tablets, etc."


It is reasonable to think that it is still too early to comprehend the consequences of intensive or exclusive use of the keyboard, which implies the development of research in this area.


From another perspective, E. Ferreiro pointed out, as early as 1988 2, the importance of keyboard writing for social and professional integration: "Nowadays it is necessary to write with both hands, with all the fingers and on a keyboard. It is the public writing of modern times, the only writing of the labor market. The pen or the pen remain in the private space, to take quick notes, to write intimate letters (...) In certain social conditions, the school could, perhaps, decide that it is better to keep the old habits, exercise the lines and calligraphy and let the parents take care of the keyboard. Nevertheless, in countries where social inequalities are more and more pronounced, it is quite unacceptable to go the wrong way. Where there is no computer at home, where there is not even electricity to turn it on ... it is precisely here that we must at least introduce the keyboard. What keyboard? That of an old and solid typewriter." We see through these remarks, that for this author, the two ways of writing, by hand or keyboard, each one their utility, which can reassure. But this discourse is already more than 20 years old, and the technological development has accelerated so much...


The computerized material lends itself to multiple tests by giving students immediate responses to actions and the possibility of quick fixes. But above all, he does not carry any value judgment. Nevertheless, the successes resulting from an autonomous work by the game of trial-errors, by trial and error, can be misleading. Indeed, can we affirm that they testify to a solid learning, that is to say, generalizable and transferable?   ? In other words, learning by doing is enough for itself   ? The answer to this question seems to be contained in this remark by Piaget (1974) 3: "To succeed is to understand in action, to understand is to succeed in thought" because there is often a big gap between the success and the conceptualization of the action. We know that what characterizes children in difficulty is the focus on concrete actions, manipulations. However, the role of the school is to promote this journey towards a cognitive construction, while being aware of the need for concrete action.


The Academy of Sciences (opcit) seems to reduce these concerns, saying that the use of digital tools presents an important educational progress by a better capacity of visual attention, a better exploration of the visual field, a better cognitive flexibility and a fluidity of the thought: "From the perspective of educational interventions, research in cognitive neuroscience leading a new educational software that take into account the principles of brain function: for example, Graphogame (grapholearn), a software game that teaches grapheme correspondence phoneme as an aid to learning to read or The Number Race, a software for the rehabilitation of dyscalculia."


Nevertheless, digital tools have not yet become widespread in kindergartens, but their use will probably expand, as their attractiveness and social value are strong. In this new context, the teacher must identify, even more acutely, the mediating role of the tools in the learning process as his own role: "Material objects have no interest in self - they are merely supports and opportunities to induce modification of the operation and construction of general cognitive tools by careful guidance." 4


In conclusion


Teaching handwriting in an explosion context of digital tools may seem secondary. However, in view of various researches, including contributions from neuroscience, this teaching does not seem superfluous. We were able to discover, with astonishment maybe, through an investigation5 conducted in 2016, the attachment to handwriting by young French people aged 16 to 25: 75% think that writing with a paper and a pen is irreplaceable, 72% note that they are more concentrated when they write by hand, 69% feel more creative thanks to it, 50% help with memorization and 95% think it helps to control spelling. The coexistence of these two ways of writing seems natural, at least now.


Be that as it may, the French kindergarten curriculum clearly imposes the teaching of cursive handwriting. The almost exclusive focus on movement, on the tracing, proposed by most methods, if necessary, is not sufficient. Organization of a school context6 that is the bearer of meaning is indispensable. It consists in taking care of the material aspects (choosing good tools, on which depends the ergonomic behavior of the pencil, the various supports, choose if possible the tables and chairs adapted to the size of the children, elaborate a rich and evolving writing space, define the place of digital), social aspects (communication between teachers to define collective choices, communication with families), the cultural context: the written word is not just a trace but a language (addressing the social uses of writing, but also the history of writing, the various writings of the world, the writing games in works of art or the hijacking of commercial signs), and finally, at your choice pedagogical and didactic. The staging of teaching is of great importance: how to arouse interest, establish a dialogue? On what it relies: the result, the procedures? Who speaks: a teacher-student face to face? Group interactions? What support is needed: demonstration ? Description? Tracing in the air? Hand-holding? What place to give to the graphic cards? Etc. If the various publications that try to answer the difficulties of the pupils (and the teachers) center on the movement, the repetition of the forms, or the holding of the tool, rare are those which take into account the validity of the models of writing given to pupils. But this is where the sources of error and degradation of writing are most often found. This is one of the aspects rarely questioned.


Thus, at present, in a social environment in turmoil, school tries to re-define its practices to best help pupils to appropriate this historical and cultural heritage that is the written language. In this delicate exercise, there is no question of abandoning oneself to a passive nostalgia, but of trying to define a theoretical, didactic and pedagogical framework sufficiently clear and functional to respond to new challenges. This is what the files distributed by the Eduscol website of the French Ministry of National Education are trying to do, but it will certainly go further in the proposals.


Marie T. Zerbato Poudou

Ph.D. in Education Science

Member of the AGEEM Scientific Council




  1. J. F.  Bach, O. Houdé P. Léna et S. Tisseron. L’enfant et les écrans, un avis de l’Académie des Sciences, Rapport 2013  http://www.academie-sciences.fr/pdf/rapport/avis0113.pdf
  2. Communication au 71èmeème congrès de l’association des écoles maternelles (AGEEM) à Auch, 1998 : « Langages et cultures : écriture et nouvelles technologies »
  3. J. Piaget. Réussir et comprendre. Paris. PUF.
  4. J.L. Paour. Quelques principes fondateurs de l’éducation cognitive. Interactions didactiques, 1988.
  5. Les jeunes français de 15 à 25 ans et l’écriture manuscrite. Dossier de presse étude Oxford/IFOP, août 2016. http://www.ifop.com/media/poll/3470-1-study_file.pdf
  6. Zerbato-Poudou M.T. (1999). Rôle du contexte dans l'apprentissage premier de l'écriture en école maternelle. A la conquête de l'écrit. Repères n°18, 113-122.