Monday, October 05, 2009

Is the Pen Mightier than the Keyboard?

The National School Board Association has a companion blog to their Board Buzz specifically for their Technology and Learning Conference coming up in October in Denver. A recent post pointed to research comparing students’ writing with a pen versus with a keyboard. Board Buzz said:
Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington Professor of Educational Psychology, discovered that children write better and longer essays at a faster pace when using a pen.
When I read the article it referenced, though, it actually stated:
"Children consistently did better writing with a pen when they wrote essays. They wrote more and they wrote faster." said Berninger.
I would first point out that writing “more and faster” is not necessarily the same as writing better, so I think NSBA might want to update their verbiage in that post. (The article did state that the students wrote more complete sentences in that portion of the study which might be considered “better,” but that wasn’t the essay portion.)

The study also left me with more questions than answers (which is not necessarily a bad thing). The study looked at second, fourth and six graders, and they had to complete a variety of tasks on paper using a pen and on a computer using a keyboard. But nowhere in the article (not sure about in the research itself as there’s no link) did it mention what kind of keyboarding skills the kids had or how much experience with computers they had - that seems like a pretty major thing to leave out. If the research actually didn’t take that into account, that seems to be a major oversight in the methodology.

After all, I think we can assume that the students have had plenty of practice writing with paper and pen, but how about on a computer? Did they have keyboarding skills or were they hunting and pecking? With the common wisdom of the moment being we shouldn’t start keyboarding practice until about the fourth grade, that really makes you wonder about the keyboarding ability the students had. Had they received instruction on composing on a computer, or was it just a test-taking tool? Since the article states that ,"We need to learn more about the process of writing with a computer, and even though schools have computers they haven't integrated them in teaching at the early grades,” that seems to indicate they have not received much instruction. Both of those factors – if they were not addressed in the actual research – would seem to suggest the results really don’t tell us very much at all. The students should do better with paper and pen if they don’t have keyboarding skills and haven’t practiced writing on the computer.

Now, having said that, I don’t necessarily disagree that young students should be writing by hand first. While I can’t find the link at the moment, I do recall some research connecting the physical movement of writing with helping students learn their letters and then to read and write. And I do think that around third or fourth grade is probably not a bad time to wait to start keyboarding in earnest based on developmental factors (although I know there are folks that start it earlier and it seems to work out fine). So the line that states, “We need to help children become bilingual writers so they can write by both the pen and the computer. So don’t throw away your pen or your keyboard. We need them both” is not bad advice, at least at the elementary level when students are learning to write.

So the article itself, and the NSBA blog post based on it, appear to be a little misleading. I also think that their definition of writing is too narrow. As the chair of the English Department at Rutgers states, writing/composing in the 21st century is a very different endeavor, and the power of the keyboard is not simply to process words, but also images, audio and video, and the resulting connections to others and their ideas that you can make. I don’t think we can make a broad statement on pen versus keyboard based simply on typing the alphabet, writing isolated sentences, or writing ten-minute essays on a certain prompt. My concern is that someone just skimming the NSBA blog might assume the research – and the NSBA itself – is saying something it really isn’t, and will apply this to older students as well as younger. That, I think, would be a mistake.

My CIO and a bunch of Anne Smith’s ninth graders have left their comments, so I encourage you to visit the blog and leave your thoughts as well.

Photo Credit: Writing or typing?, originally uploaded by Stefan Koopmanschap.


  1. Karl, I think your point about keyboarding skills of young students being overlooked is very important.

    I can tell you that after a month of keyboarding practice and exposure to computers on a daily basis, many of my third graders write much better (not just faster) on a word processor than with pencil/paper. Their peers in other classrooms are left in the dust.

    Kids will learn and excel if we give them the latest tools and teach them how to use them - early.

    Oh how I wish my third graders had been exposed to this stuff in second grade. They would REALLY by flying by now. - Mark

  2. (Cross posted on
    Last year I blogged about things in education that should continue to be taught. The item that generated the most comments (and controversy) was the issue of handwriting.

    Dean Shareski, Ken Rodoff, and Carolyn Foote had weighed in, among others sharing that overall, they felt that handwriting should not be emphasized in school in this age of keyboarding.

    I aired out the question of handwriting to members of my Dodge Research team from my district. They are all technology savvy teachers who use it frequently for personal use as well as in their classrooms. They felt that handwriting needs to be taught, and even remediated, especially on the high school level. The source of their claim: standardized tests.

    Think about it: New Jersey standardized tests (ASK, GEPA, HSPA), SAT's, ACTs, and Advanced Placement tests...they all require students to write essays or short answer responses that are scored. One of the teachers who was a reader for the SAT's told me that they were instructed to not score a writing passage that could not be decifered or was illegible.

    In colleges, the blue book essay on exams is still a staple.

    It goes even further: For graduate school, students have to take GRE's, GMAT, LSATs, and MCAT's...all of which require a writing sample.

    Further still: Licensure exams, like the one I had to take to become a school administrator have a writing portion.

    While I agree that handwriting doesn't have to be artistic, is does have to be legible and expeditious. If a student can't make time limits on tests... or is illegible and loses points as a result, they will not get a true assessment and potentially be penalized for it.

    Until ETS, colleges, and other testing companies go to laptops or keyboarded writing responses for all tests, handwriting needs to be taught and remediated or the kids will suffer.

  3. @Barry - Perhaps. But our district piloted netbooks in 5th grade classrooms last year, and those kids scored better on their state-mandated, paper-and-pencil tests. I'm not arguing that we should stop teaching students how to print, but I'm not sure I buy that once they know how to print that they can only improve their performance on a writing assessment by writing without a computer.

    For the second graders in this study, I'm betting that most of the standardized tests they'll be taking by the time they get to the end of high school will be computerized. (Our state is looking at this right now for our standardized test.) Does that mean - based on the standardized test argument - that we should stop having them print at all?

    Finally, of course, is the simple argument that instead of being reactive we should be proactive. If we believe this is what's best for kids, and I think most of us reading/commenting here probably do, then we should do it. And we should demand that those testing organizations adapt to how we actually work here in the 21st century instead of foisting anachronistic means of assessment on children.

  4. @Mark - I'd be curious to hear more about how you practice keyboarding/writing with your third graders - is it pretty straightforward keyboarding tutorials, or something else?

  5. Hi Karl,

    I am a fourth grade teacher at East Elementary. I found out about this blog post through Chris and Niki's 5th grade blog. I am so glad you wrote what you did on the NSBA blog. I completely agree.

    As I read, I was thinking "of course these students were writing more and faster with pen because that was most likely what they had been writing with for all of their previous years of schooling." I'm guessing they had minimal use with a keyboard. I kept reading the responses and couldn't believe no one was making that point. Then, there was your post. Just interesting that it was a fellow LPS teacher that was making the same point I wanted to make.

    With the purchase of more netbooks for our school last year, we were able to have our fourth grade students on the computers quite a bit the last trimester of the year. I think just having that short time of exposure really set them up for all of the blogging and technology use that is now expected of them as 5th graders. I think the bar is set high and they rise to it. This year, we've able to get our students using the netbooks right away!

    In my opinion, the research isn't valid. In order to make it so, they would need to conduct the research using students who had equal amount of instruction with a keyboard and with a "pen".

    My hope is that in the near future, students will be taught both handwriting and keyboarding skills very early on. That way, when they do reach fourth or fifth grade, we as teachers can focus on content and the keyboarding won't have to get in the way anymore.

    I'm glad I came across your comment.


  6. At first I was really surprised to hear that writing with a pen was easier and faster than typing with a keyboard. But after thinking about it, I realized that just because kids know how to use the internet by age 7 doesn't neccesarily mean that they can type perfectly from the beginning. Maybe schools should start putting in typing classes into their elementary school curriculums.