Is the learning of letters affected by the modality of training experience?

Funding Round: 1 2015-2017

Research Question: Is the learning and long-term retention of letters affected by the modality of training experience— handwriting, typing, or visual?

Interdisciplinary Approach: This fellowship integrates the perspectives of the cognitive neuroscientist, educational researcher, and classroom teacher. Both behavioral and neuroimaging methodologies will be used to address the same issues at both cognitive and neural levels of analysis.

Potential Implications of Research: The results will address outstanding questions about the role of modality in literacy development by bringing to bear, for the first time, both neural and behavioral measures to a longitudinal design and generate findings that can be implemented in actual classroom settings to improve the learning of a new alphabet letters by second language learners.

Project Description:

When was the last time you wrote or received a handwritten letter? The answer to that is probably much less recently than the last time you wrote an e-mail. Technological advances in how we communicate mean we spend much less of our time with pen and ink in favor of the keyboard and screen. From the education perspective, teachers and parents alike have wondered whether these changes have an impact on our ability to successfully learn to read and write. Do we lose something more than penmanship when we become much less practiced in handwriting? In this project we will measure both behavior and brain activity to examine: 1) how one’s ability to learn and remember letters is affected by whether you practice writing them by hand or typing them and 2) how such differences during learning can be effectively studied and tracked. In addition to their practical significance, these issues are also relevant to long-standing basic science questions regarding the relationship between the sensorimotor and visual representations of objects. Investigating letters allows for the study of a class of visual objects that has the unique characteristic of being used to represent human language.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), several studies have found the pattern of brain activation upon reading letters depends on previous experience with producing them: children show adult-like activation only to letters that they have practiced writing by hand, compared to typing, tracing, or studying visually. Similarly, other findings show that adults taught new letters learn them best when they practice writing them by hand. However, most of the results that show different consequences for the brain have not found differences in people’s behavior, and studies that have shown differences in the learning outcomes have not measured if these effects are long-lasting, which is especially important for educational practices.

The goal of this project is to measure the neural and cognitive (brain and behavior) consequences of training modality (whether you practice writing by hand, typing, or visually studying) on the adult learning of new letters (specifically of the Arabic alphabet). This project will track the learning of the letters’ shapes and their names over the course of training, comparing differences between people who are trained in these different modalities, and will relate these differences to changes in the brain as measured by fMRI. Finally, participants in this study will be examined after training has been completed to measure learning retention and long-term changes in the brain. Most directly, what we learn from this study will be used to inform teaching practices in second-language classrooms. More broadly speaking, our findings will to contribute to understanding how the increased role of technology in our lives is shaping how we read and write. 

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