“I can’t read this!” How many times have you seen this written on a child’s homework assignment? When a child has bad handwriting, it is often assumed that he is lazy, not putting forth his best effort or just not sufficiently motivated to write neatly. It is especially confusing when the child’s performance is inconsistent, with work being readable at times and completely illegible at other times. Many people don’t realize it, but handwriting isn’t just picking up a pencil and moving it around a piece of paper. Handwriting involves numerous underlying skills that all merge together to form the ability to write. What are these skills?
Strength and Balance
You don’t normally think of body strength when you think of handwriting, but strength directly relates to a child’s ability to maintain his or her posture as he or she writes. There are three key underlying components:
- Core strength – this refers to the strength of the muscles of the trunk, including the abdominal muscles, back muscles, and muscles that stabilize the pelvis. All of these muscles work together to maintain a child’s sitting balance and upright posture. If these muscles are weak, a child might slouch at his desk or slide down in her chair while writing.
- Shoulder strength – the shoulders control a child’s ability to move his arms away from his body. When writing, children must be able to move their hands freely. The shoulders provide the support that allows this movement to happen. If a child has decreased shoulder strength, he may lean on his elbows or lay on his forearms while writing, limiting his hand’s ability to move from left to right across the page as she writes.
- Hand strength – adequate strength in the small muscles of the hands is essential to holding writing tools and writing for long periods of time. These muscles stabilize the fingers while they form an appropriate pencil grasp and maintain hand and finger position during writing. Weakness in the fingers leads to poor pencil grasp, inadequate pressure while writing, and complaints about hand pain or fatigue.
Fine Motor Skills
Fine motor skills are the small motor movements the hand makes when a child handles small objects. These skills include a child’s ability to pinch, roll, and move objects within the hand or act upon objects with the fingers. Fine motor skills play a major role in a child’s ability to control a pencil during writing. Poor fine motor skills may result in awkward pencil grasps or letters that are larger than the writing space. A child may drop the pencil or may use two hands to position the pencil.
Tactile Discrimination and Proprioception
These two terms refer to a child’s ability to feel objects in her fingers, including the position and weight of an object in relation to her hand. Tactile discrimination and proprioception allow a child to feel the size, texture, and weight of a pencil, as well as where the pencil is in her fingers, without constantly looking at the pencil. Deficits in these skills may result in a child holding a pencil too tightly or pressing down very hard on the paper while writing. A child may also avoid writing altogether if the pencil feels uncomfortable in her hand.
Hand Dominance and Right/Left Discrimination
Having a “writing hand” is essential in learning to write. A child will learn the motor patterns involved with writing more quickly if she consistently uses her dominant hand. The ability to tell the difference between left and right also helps children learn where to start writing on the page and how words and sentences should be placed on the paper. Problems with hand dominance may result in difficulties with letter formation.
The ability to coordinate the movements of the hands with the movements of the eyes is called eye-hand coordination. During writing, children use eye-hand coordination to visually track across a page while writing or to align letters on the writing line. Problems with eye-hand coordination may result in writing that slants off the writing line to one side or does not start at the margin of the paper.
Visual perception is a child’s ability to understand what he sees, including the ability to tell the difference between different shapes, lines and patterns (visual discrimination), the ability to see a shape or an object against a busy background (figure-ground), the ability to know when the form of a shape or object is complete (visual closure), and the ability to remember forms and shapes (visual memory). A child’s ability to learn what letters look like is directly affected by visual perception. Deficits in this skill can result in letters that are not formed correctly, reversals, and problems with spacing letters while writing.
Motor planning (also called praxis) is a child’s ability to consciously send signals from his brain to his body to complete an action. The more complex the action, the more motor planning is required. Since writing is a complex action, it requires fairly advanced motor planning abilities. Placing the fingers to hold the pencil, placing the tip of the pencil in the correct spot on the paper, remembering the motor movements necessary to form letters, and remembering how to write from task to task are all affected by motor planning. Poor motor planning skills can result in poorly formed letters, writing that is off the writing line or running over into the margins, writing that is too large or too small, and inefficient pencil grasps.
It is important to remember that all of these underlying skills work together to help a child write. Often, more than one of these skills is affected when writing is not legible. If your child or student is having problems with handwriting, watch for these skills as they write and you may find some clues to why he is having handwriting difficulty. Also, be aware that he may be able to write neatly for short periods of time with simpler writing tasks, yet be unable to sustain that level of legibility with more complex writing tasks or over longer writing assignments.