In our daily lives, we spend a lot more time tapping at a screen and typing on a keyboard than writing with pencil and pen, so does handwriting tuition still offer anything useful? Absolutely, according to a new study.

Researchers tasked 42 adult volunteers with learning the Arabic alphabet from scratch: some through writing it out on paper, some through typing it out on a keyboard, and some through watching and responding to video instructions.

Those in the handwriting group not only learned the unfamiliar letters more quickly, but they were also better able to apply their new knowledge in other areas – by using the letters to make new words and to recognize words they hadn't seen before, for example.

"The question out there for parents and educators is why should our kids spend any time doing handwriting," says cognitive scientist Brenda Rapp from Johns Hopkins University. "Obviously, you're going to be a better hand-writer if you practice it. But since people are handwriting less, then maybe who cares?"

"The real question is: Are there other benefits to handwriting that have to do with reading and spelling and understanding? We find there most definitely are."

While writing, typing, and visual learning were effective at teaching participants to recognize Arabic letters – learners made very few mistakes after six exercise sessions – on average, the writing group needed fewer sessions to get to a good standard.

Researchers then tested the groups to see how the learning could be generalized. In every follow-up test, using skills they hadn't been trained on, the writing group performed the best: naming letters, writing letters, spelling words, and reading words.

The research shows that the benefits of teaching through handwriting go beyond better penmanship: There are also advantages in other areas of language learning. It seems as though the knowledge gets more firmly embedded through writing.

"The main lesson is that even though they were all good at recognizing letters, the writing training was the best at every other measure," says cognitive scientist Robert Wiley from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. "And they required less time to get there."

While 42 people isn't a huge sample size for a study of this type, the trends reported by the study indicate that pen and paper still have an important role to play in learning, even as digital formats have come to dominate our communications.

And although adults were used in this particular experiment, the researchers say their findings should have relevance to children too. Several previous studies have also highlighted the advantages of copying as an aid to learning.

Today pupils in schools spend far less time than they used to on handwriting skills and practice, for obvious reasons – but based on what this study shows, it wouldn't be wise to put away the pens and pencils permanently.

"With writing, you're getting a stronger representation in your mind that lets you scaffold toward these other types of tasks that don't in any way involve handwriting," says Wiley.

The research has been published in Psychological Science.