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Handwriting is often thought of as the physical performance of handwriting in order to put pencil to paper to record words, but in it’s broader context is used to mean the output of pencil skills (that is, written communication on paper or more recently in an IT format). The components involved in written communication are the physical performance of handwriting or typing,  as well as the cognitive (thinking skills) of spelling, grammar and story planning.  The extent to which a student is able to demonstrate their academic ability is significantly reliant upon their ability to capture their thoughts in written communication.

Handwriting performance

Although we commonly think of handwriting as simply what we see written on the page, handwriting actually reflects two equally important aspects:

  • Product: What the written outcome looks like (e.g. Are the letters neat, legible, written on the line and correctly formed?).
  • Performance: How the handwriting is performed (e.g. How is the pencil held? How fast is the task performed? Is there any pain during the performance?).

Both these crucial aspects of handwriting are themselves dependent upon several underlying abilities including:

  • Legibility(readability/what is produced): Influenced by letter/number awareness and formation; writing on (not above) the line; leaving appropriate spaces between letters and words, and letters being the correct size. At a very basic level, it is also dependent upon the ability to form the ‘pre-writing shapes’ that combine to form letters and numbers (e.g. o + l = a).
  • Mechanics:Where the movement comes from (either from the shoulder, elbow, wrist or fingers) to allow appropriate pencil fluency and support appropriate pencil skill endurance which is influenced by pencil grip, finger strength and control, sensory processing (especially in the hand and fingers) and positioning (e.g. posture at the table).

 

Importance of handwriting performance:

Writing is the means by which children’s academic performance is assessed. In fact, in the upper grades, handwriting performance can significantly determine the quantity of writing produced in exams, as well as the legibility. It is best mastered early in the schooling career to prevent bad habits forming.

The underlying skills that determine handwriting abilities are similar to those for other every day (self-care) dexterous hand skills (e.g. doing up buttons, cleaning teeth, tying shoelaces). They are interestingly also the same as those for keyboard use! Thus it is crucial to recognise that even if you are not interested in developing handwriting but you are in developing keyboard skills, the same underlying skills are necessary.

Typing versus handwriting: Despite the advent of computers and the belief by many that typing is more important than writing as a life skill, there is rarely the reason to totally exclude handwriting skill development as the pre-requisite skills for efficient keyboard use are the same as for handwriting. Furthermore, despite the use of computers we still need the ability to hand write in small amounts for filling in forms, signing cheques and the like, as well as performing the tasks that reinforce appropriate finger control for the daily tasks mentioned above.

 

The necessary building blocks to develop handwriting performance:

  • Hand dominance: The consistent use of one (usually the same) hand for task performance, which allows refined skills to develop.
  • Hand division: Using just the thumb, index and middle finger for manipulation, leaving the fourth and little finger tucked into the palm, not participating but supporting the remaining 3 fingers.
  • Hand and finger strength: An ability to exert force against resistance using the hands and fingers.
  • Shoulder stability: The ability to use the shoulder joint muscles to hold the shoulder steady which then allows the arm to be held in different positions while the forearm and hand perform handwriting.
  • Letter awareness: Consistent knowledge of the letters appearance, sound and later its name, either by visual recognition or by writing them (age appropriateness must be considered).
  • Number awareness: Consistent knowledge of the correct formation and orientation of numbers, associated with an understanding of what the numbers mean.
  • Pencil control: The control with which a pencil is held and moved in a designated or desired way, which is also influenced by finger strength and sensory processing.
  • Pencil mechanics: How the pencil is held and moved, including appropriate pressure applied to the paper with the pencil.
  • Pre-writing skills: The pencil strokes that comprise most letters, numbers and early drawings (including l, —, o, +, /, square, \, X, and Δ).
  • Visual perception: The brain’s ability to interpret and make sense of visual images seen by the eye, such as letters and numbers.
  • Planning and sequencing: The sequential multi-step task/activity performance to achieve a well-defined result.
  • Postural control: The ability to stabilise the trunk and neck to enable coordination of other limbs such as the arm (and hand) for writing.

 

Other problems that can occur when a child has handwriting performance difficulties:

When children have difficulties with handwriting performance, they are might also have difficulties with:

  • Learning such as mastering letter and number formation appropriately.
  • Planning and organisation of physical performance such as how to pick up and hold the pencil correctly each time.
  • Planning and organisation of cognitive performance such as how to plan the story content and flow. When writing stories, they might be very similar rather than extending the theme each time.
  • Handwriting speed: Slowed by awkward physical or thinking skills.
  • Developing cursive or link script writing that can only be easily achieved when the fluid movement of the pencil has been mastered.
  • Postural control and balance: The ability to stabilise the trunk and neck to enable coordination of limbs such as the arm and hand for handwriting.
  • Self-care: The ability to hold utensils such as a toothbrush, open zip lock bags, do buttons and zips or tie laces.

 

When children have difficulties with handwriting performance, they are might also have difficulties with:

  • Poor persistence with handwriting tasks, which puts a child at risk of becoming disengaged in an academic environment and under-performing academically.
  • Difficulties in meeting academic criteria due to poor handwriting skills.
  • Increased pressure and anxiety in a school-aged child due to difficulties keeping up in class.
  • Difficulties completing exams due to difficulty answering all questions in writing within the allocated time.
  • Poor self-esteem when a child compares their abilities with their peers.
  • Being pressured to turn to IT as the solution when they don’t have the underlying skills for success in this written communication from either.

 

You could seek Occupational Therapy if you notice the following difficulties with your child’s handwriting performance:

Therapeutic intervention to help a child with handwriting performance difficulties is important to:

  • Avoid your child becoming disengaged in an academic environment due to difficulties completing handwriting activities in class as handwriting difficulties are the leading cause of academic underperformance.
  • Avoid frustration experienced by you, teachers and your child when he/she is struggling to remain engaged in academic activities that involve handwriting.
  • Prevent a large skill deficit developing between your child’s high reading capacity and lower spelling and writing skills which only serves to reinforce the dislike of handwriting.
  • Improve the legibility of your child’s writing so they can get appropriate credit for the work they have produced.
  • Ensure that your child’s handwriting (and subsequent spelling) progresses age appropriately rather than falling behind due to fatigue from physical handwriting challenges.
  • Ensure that your child is able to get their ideas down on paper in a timely manner.
  • Ensure that what your child writes matches their intellectual/verbal capacity as much as possible.

 

We can help your child to develop handwriting skills such as:

• A functional pencil grip
• Forming letters and numbers correctly (no reversals)
• Keeping their writing on the line (rather than all over the page!)
• Improve the legibility of their writing
• Putting less strain upon their hand and body to write
• Organising their ideas
• Getting their ideas onto paper

For Older Children who are struggling with handwriting, we can assess your child’s handwriting and recommend alternative methods of recording e.g. assistive technology, scribe for exams etc.