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Handwriting | The Ultimate Challenge

Handwriting is something most adults do on a daily basis - from writing out a shopping list to adding a message into a birthday card to filling out a form. With the increase in reliance on technology, we may find ourselves writing less than previous generations, but there is a still a need to be able to pick up a pen and turn your thoughts into letters on a page.

Despite how often we write, this seemingly straightforward task is actually quite a difficult skill that we learn in childhood and then spend many years refining while we are at school. Some people do better at the refining process than others!

Being able to write using pen and paper requires several body functions to work together. We need the motor skills to be able to tell our body what to do, the visual perception to be able to see what we are doing and the executive functioning to be able to plan, execute and adjust what we want to write.

Motor Strength & Coordination

To be able to write, we need to be strong enough in our body to be able to hold ourselves upright (good posture & core strength) and strong enough in our hands to be able to hold the pencil in position. We need to be able to move our fingers, wrist & arm across the page as we form letters.

At one point or another in your handwriting experience, you had to change how you held the pen. When toddlers first pick up a colouring tool - like a pencil - they have an immature grip using the whole hand. The next stage uses all the fingers to grasp the pencil, followed by all the fingers with the end of the pencil resting on the hand and then just a few fingers and a lighter resting position.

Visual Perception

This is our ability for our brain to be able to make sense of what we see. For handwriting, this starts before we even put pen to paper. Before letters & numbers, we work in shapes. We need to be able to see the shapes, see which way up they are (the orientation), to tell the difference between shapes and to recognise an order or pattern of shapes. We learn to draw these shapes - starting with round & round movements and building our skills to up & down, side to side marking and diagonal movements. Once we are writing, the shapes become letters and we use these skills to turn letters into words.

Being good at writing is not just about spelling correctly. It's also about how those letters look. We need to consider spacing as we are required to write on the line, direction as we go from left to right and top to bottom and size as we keep all the make our letters a uniform height. This takes some time to establish and lots of concentration!

Correct letter formation can be challenging for children with visual perception difficulties. Forming letters is often the first time that the direction of drawing shapes makes a difference. To look at them, 'b' and 'd' are the same except for the way they face. But to write them, we need different starting points and different directions for pencil movements. This is different to shapes such as a circle or square - which are the same shape no matter how you draw them.

Executive Functioning

This it the ability to plan, organise, reflect and make changes. For handwriting, this is the mental process of how your writing will look on the page, where to start writing and how big to make the letters so they fit on the line. We then need to execute the movements with our hand & body to form letters on the paper. As we are writing, we make higher level adaptations to adjust to writing conditions - such as how hard to press with a pencil vs a pen or making our writing smaller if we want to squeeze a word onto the page. Although some children may have excellent letter formation, their handwirting can be affected by difficulties with executive functioning when they cannot plan or adjust effectively.

If your child find handwriting a hard task, has messy writing or gets tired after only writing a short amount, try these tips to help:

  • Provide cues on how to form letters. We like the Printing Like a Pro program which you can download & print for free online. Click here for the website.

  • Use a variety of highlights on lines to assist in visualising size and space

  • Increase or decrease the size of the lines to assist with motor accuracy

  • Think about the purpose of the activity and work from where the child is at. If the goal is to work on handwriting, don't worry too much about the spelling

Way to practice handwriting without realising it:

  • Ask your child to write things on the shopping list

  • Get your child to draw a comic and write in the captions

  • Get your child to help you write out birthday cards for family

  • Letting your child complete forms for school fundraisers or other activities

If your child finds handwriting challenging, our Occupational Therapy team can help with an assessment and therapy ideas to develop these skills.

The Out Loud Team

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