Pencil and paper versus tablet computer
Study with pre-school children: What effect do writing tools have on literacy training?

Ulm University

Digitisation presents an ever-increasing challenge for schools as well. As the dispute over the Digital Pact showed, opinions are extremely polarised: Some see the tablet computer as a panacea to make German pupils fit for the future. Others firmly believe in the didactic superiority of classic tools such as pencil and paper. The results of a recently published intervention study with pre-school children speak for a healthy middle way. Researchers from Ulm University were able to show that analogue and digital writing tools each have their own strengths.

A research team led by Ulm psychologist Professor Markus Kiefer and biologist Dr. Petra Arndt has examined how writing tools affect the learning success in the literacy training of pre-school children. In an intervention study with 147 kindergarten children from Ulm and the surrounding areas, the researchers investigated the influence of analogue and digital writing tools on the early reading and writing skills of pre-schoolers. 'We compared three groups: One group worked with paper and pencil, group two and three used tablet computers. While the second group of children used a virtual keyboard, the third group were given a digital pen for their literacy training with the tablet computer,' Professor Markus Kiefer outlines the structure of the study. The psychologist heads the Section for Cognitive Electrophysiology of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy III at the University Medical Centre in Ulm. The children were examined extensively before the study in order to ensure comparable physical, cognitive and linguistic preconditions. All children were in the last year of kindergarten before their scheduled school entry.

Hand movements help us to understand the world

'Hand movements literally help us to understand the world. When we write by hand, the visual memory track is supported by the motor memory track because there is a direct connection between the shape of the letters and the movement performed,' explains Kiefer, whose area of expertise includes chirography. This begs the question what impact different writing modalities have on thinking – especially the processes of learning, remembering and understanding. Other studies in this field, on the other hand, have shown that particularly for children with motor deficits the use of a keyboard can be beneficial in learning to read and write, precisely because writing by hand is very demanding.

The Ulm pre-school study wanted to know which writing utensils best support the learning success in literacy training. 'We were definitely surprised by some of the results,' says Carmen Mayer, first author of the study that was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The psychologist works as a doctoral candidate under the direction of Dr. Petra Arndt at the ZNL TransferCenter for Neuroscience and Learning at Ulm University. For the study, the boys and girls of the three comparison groups were playfully trained to learn 16 letters and to read and write short words formed from them. 

Paper and pencil bring the most advantages, but keyboards also have their good points

While the pencil and paper group was ahead especially in letter recognition and showed greater improvements in visual-spatial skills, the keyboard group scored better in reading and writing whole words, especially compared to training with a stylus on the tablet touch screen. With regard to the use of a digital pen the researchers had expected this group to do better than was actually the case. 'We suspect that the slippery screen surface required too much attention from the children and thus hampered their learning success,' says Kiefer. And although the study found clear differences between the groups, these were small and not always statistically significant. The conclusion: 'In any case, it is fair to say that writing with pencil and paper has the most advantages and the least disadvantages. In addition, this classic writing tool is less expensive and less susceptible to technical glitches than digital writing instruments,' Professor Markus Kiefer notes.

Future tablet surfaces may offer a friction similar to that of paper, making it easier to write with a stylus on digital devices. The researchers from Ulm believe that analogue and digital handwriting could then be expected to have similar effects. The use of keyboards also has its merits when it comes to literacy training at the word level. 'Our results show that it makes no sense to categorically demonise digital aids, nor is it advisable to banish classic writing tools from the classroom,' agree Kiefer and Arndt. As so often, the best way is probably somewhere in the middle.

The study is a cooperation between the ZNL TransferCentre for Neuroscience and Learning and the Section for Cognitive Electrophysiology of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy III at the University Medical Centre Ulm. The company Staedtler supported the study in the form of a donation.

Media contact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann

Mayer, C., Waller, S., Budde-Sprengler, N., Braunert, S., Arndt, P. A., Kiefer, M. (2020). Literacy training of kindergarten children with pencil, keyboard or tablet stylus: The influence of the writing tool on reading and writing performance at the letter and word level. Frontiers in Psychology. 10:3054, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03054

For the study, the pre-school children used different writing tools
For the study, the pre-school children used different writing tools: paper & pencil, the virtual keyboard of a tablet computer, or a digital pen (photo: ZNL Ulm University)
Children writing with a pencil
Over a period of seven weeks, the pre-school boys and girls were trained to recognise, write and read 16 letters and the short words they formed from them (photo: ZNL Ulm University)
Children writing with a digital pen on the touch screen of a tablet computer
Children writing with a digital pen on the touch screen of a tablet computer (photo: ZNL Ulm University)
from the left Carmen Mayer, Dr. Petra Arndt and Prof. Markus Kiefer
from the left Carmen Mayer, Dr. Petra Arndt and Prof. Markus Kiefer (photos: Ulm University and University Medical Centre Ulm)