By Debra George, OTR/L
Handwriting, used by many people every day, is a valuable form of communication for the expression of ideas, conveying information, setting out thoughts and emotions, and countless other things that people do in their daily lives. Children should master the ability to write and harness this skill in order to succeed on many levels, and many students may graduate from high school and yet struggle to effectively and skillfully express themselves in handwritten form, especially in cursive.
Like spelling, grammar, and phonics, handwriting is a support skill that helps build a strong foundation for student success. Many students are going through the school system with handwriting that is very difficult to read and hence fails to fulfill its intent to communicate with others. Teachers are often unable to read a student’s writing and may even give them a lower grade or have them rewrite information for the sake of clarity. Sometimes a student’s writing is so illegible that they may struggle to understand his/her own writing. This is a source of frustration for both the student and the teacher, and a cause for student’s stress as well as potential low self-esteem.
Students are taught prewriting and handwriting (print) in kindergarten. Often, the teachers are faced with large classrooms with 25 or more students. Children are often taught in groups and may not have fully developed fine motor skills at a young age to be able to manipulate a pencil and draw various shapes such as horizontal lines, vertical lines, circles and intersecting lines in a group setting. A student is expected to hold a pencil correctly and write his/her name, but, if the child has weak hand muscles it is difficult to properly hold a pencil. If a student is unable to draw a diagonal line, they may not be able to accurately print the letter A. Habits, good or bad, are developed in kindergarten, such as pencil grip and proper letter formation. A good pencil grip and eye-hand coordination are necessary elements in good handwriting. As students progress through the grades it becomes more difficult for them to change the way they learned to grip a pencil or pen. It is noteworthy to consider that a student in the 3rd grade may not be able to change his or her chosen grip unless it is causing pain or results in writing too slow, since the student’s grip has essentially been established at this point in time.
Cursive provides a natural consistent flow of bottom to top movement and at first, when the student is just learning cursive, they must write slowly to form the letters thus improving legibility. However, cursive is seldom taught thoroughly in the school settings.
Upper body strength and posture also play a significant role in developing good handwriting skills. Poor posture for any number of reasons can limit the development of fine motor skills. A student should be sitting in a 90-90-90 position, and the student’s hips, knees and ankles should all be at 90 degree angles with the student’s feet firmly touching the floor.
Students with a diagnosis of dysgraphia, i.e., a learning disability that affects handwriting and fine motor skills, may find that keyboarding skills are more beneficial for them once they are able to isolate all their fingers and move them individually. A parent may seek the advice of an assistive technologist to help with identifying and using a proper device to help a student. Use of an iPad device and a specific application that allows a student to take a picture of a worksheet, then type on the worksheet in the classroom or at home for homework, may be used to convey a more legible product for both the teacher and the student to read.
Some children have more difficulty with handwriting and require the expertise of a Registered Occupational Therapist with extensive experience in teaching hand writing skills, providing an opportunity for a student needing more intensive assistance in developing the skills necessary for good handwriting.
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