Written by Bronte, Occupational Therapist
With the rise of the use of technology in the classroom, many have questioned, why is it essential that children still have learn to write, especially when it can be difficult for so many children? If you have also pondered this question you have come to the right place. Handwriting is still regarded as a critical life skill and method of communication. In children, there are strong connections between being competent with handwriting, self-esteem, and academic success.
What is the impact of poor handwriting?
Children who have difficulties with handwriting often have trouble keeping up with the amount of work they are required to do in the classroom, thus impacting their academic performance. Additionally, a 2012 study has identified that children who are able to competently handwrite, are more likely learn to read quicker and more confidently than children who are only exposed to typing. This is due to the experience created by learning to write which results in better letter recognition and enhanced letter processing in the brain. The effects of poor handwriting are not limited to literacy lessons, these children are also more likely to have lower performance in mathematics and exhibit poor classroom behaviours which has a flow-on effect to friendship development. Children who have difficulties with handwriting are more likely to require additional support to remain attentive in the classroom, to ensure that they do not fall behind their peers. They can also experience frustration in the classroom, and as a result turn to distracting their peers, as a means of masking their struggles. In older children, messy handwriting often receives less marks in formal exams than when neatly written.
Children who have difficulties with handwriting may be referred to as “lazy”, “lacking motivation” or “non-compliant” and here at Stepping Stones we know that just simply is not true! These kids just need extra support to improve their handwriting to unlock their full potential.
Handwriting is not as simple as copying a bunch of letters from a white board, it requires appropriate posture and core strength, sustained attention, sensory processing, visual motor integration, hand strength, visual motor coordination, in hand manipulation and the list goes on! That is a lot for a tiny human! So, where to first if you think your child is struggling with handwriting? How do you even know if they are struggling with handwriting, what is the difference between a little messy and not functional?
What does it mean to have good handwriting?
As the saying goes, children must walk before they can run, for handwriting, children must scribble before they can write. Handwriting develops with age, so it is important to consider the age of your child when evaluating their handwriting abilities.
First, children must learn to scribble. This helps children to develop the foundational skills which are relevant to handwriting. From here, children learn what are commonly referred to as “pre-writing shapes”, this includes, drawing straight vertical (typically achieved at 2 years old) and horizontal lines (2 years old 6 months) and circles (3 years old). Between 3-4 years of age, children begin to apply these foundational skills of handwriting and learn to use scissors. Children then begin to learn to draw and copy geometrical shapes, such as a cross (4 years old), squares (5 years old), and triangles (5 years 6 months). Children learn to write their name and begin to learn letters from here.
As academic demands increase with the child’s age, so do expectations of handwriting abilities. Good handwriting is constituted by correct positioning of letters on the writing line, correct letter formation and orientation, appropriate spacing between words and letters, consistent letter sizing and general legibility and neatness. Fluency and speed also become increasingly important as the demands of the classroom environment and the quantity of materials covered in lessons increases.
I like to think of skill development for children like building a brick wall. Bricks cannot float independently in the sky; therefore, you must always start from the ground up. There must be a good foundation as otherwise it will all come toppling down in a slight breeze. Handwriting is just the same, no matter your child’s age or level of ability, all wins, no matter how small they may seem, must be celebrated! If it is drawing a straight line, copying a circle, or writing their name- this is such a big and vital achievement! All these smaller skills are critical to success and beautiful, fluent handwriting cannot be achieved without them.
How do I know if my child has poor handwriting? What if my child does have poor handwriting? What now?
If your child is at the end of kindergarten or beginning year 1, the following can indicate that your child may need additional support with handwriting:
- Inefficient pencil grasp or not using a dynamic tripod grasp (as pictured)
- Difficulty writing name
- Frequent letter reversals
- Illegible writing when copying 3–5-word sentences
- Lots of pressure through pencil when writing
- Difficulty positioning letter on writing line.
If your child is struggling with handwriting, not to worry! Many children do! And because of this there are endless evidence-based strategies which can be implemented to best support your child improve their skills. The best person to speak to would be your child’s Teacher, check in with them to determine whether an assessment by an Occupational Therapist is required.
What intervention approaches will an occupational therapist consider when supporting my child with handwriting?
Handwriting is one of my favourite things to work on as an Occupational Therapist as the intervention opportunities are endless and often do not involve wrote learning how to write neat letters. A critical component of intervention will be ensuring that your child is using an age-appropriate pencil grasp. However, we are aiming to see a tripod (3-finger pencil grasp, with the pointer finger on top of the pencil) by the time the child is 7 years old. From here, depending on the difficulties identified by the formal assessment process, a range of interventions will be considered.
This includes and is not limited to:
- Developing visual motor coordination
- Hand and core strengthening exercises
- Sensory strategies to support attention and regulation in the classroom
- Letter formation activities
- Visual motor integration tasks
- And the list goes on! As there are so many components of successful handwriting, practice is essential- no matter what skill it is you are trying to improve.
If your child does have significant challenges and you have tried all best practice evidence-based approaches and you have only made slight progress, there are alternative solutions which can support them to positively engage with the classroom environment. This includes and is not limited to laptops, voice to text devices and support from a scribe. An Occupational Therapist will work with you and your child’s Teacher to determine if and what device is most appropriate for them.
So, whilst technology does appear to be taking over, handwriting is still here to stay, with an endless number of benefits associated with achieving success.
We are always so excited to support you and your child to reach their full potential, so if you do have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to get into contact with the Stepping Stones Occupational Therapy team.
Feder, K.P. and Majnemer, A. (2007), Handwriting development, competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49: 312-317. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8749.2007.00312.x
James, K.H., Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Volume 1, Issue 1,
2012. Pages 32-42. ISSN 2211-9493, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2012.08.001.
Figure 1: Kindergarten News, Pencil Grip Info, 2015. KINDERGARTEN NEWS: October 2015 (holyredeemerkindergarten.blogspot.com)