I read somewhere that all children can improve their writing skills with a lot of practice. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. Handwriting isn’t simply about putting pencil to paper. It is a complex activity that requires efficient visual, fine, and gross motor skills in order to be mastered. When a child struggles with handwriting skills, and after first grade continues to find mastery to be a problem, chances are that there are skills that need to be addressed that go far beyond practicing.
Many children produce inefficient handwriting and yet they have had many opportunities to practice. They and their parents have spent many grueling hours with printing or cursive handwriting worksheets. Some have even reported that tears would almost always follow this work. Their dedication to the task was not at fault. It had more to do with the underlying visual-motor/perceptual skills that are required to produce efficient handwriting. As an occupational therapist who helps children work to gain handwriting mastery, I am a firm believer is “Quality versus quantity.” And although the practicing won’t end, the quantity and quality of the practicing should change. That’s the difference between getting frustrated and getting results.
Three Levels of Handwriting Struggles
But let’s start with a jump back to the beginning, shall we? When children are introduced to manuscript, they all fall into three general categories:
1. They get it. These children pick up a pencil and seem to have the “knack” for learning letter formations, reproducing them fluidly and recalling them quickly, without conscious thought.
2. They need structured adaptations. These students tend to have special needs that prevent them from mastering the physical end of the skill (holding the writing utensil independently) and/or the cognitive side of the task (learning disabilities).
3. They haven’t a clue why it isn’t working. These are the children who have practiced, practiced again, and continued to practice until the word “handwriting” sent them running from the building! They may have tried suggested adaptations (pencil grips, paper positioning), just to be discouraged because they weren’t the solution to the mystery that darkens their school day. These are the wonderful children that I work with each day and for whom I am speaking up for today.
So, now that we’ve defined the different levels of handwriting struggles…let me share a few more thoughts before we move on.
- For children who “get it:” practice on! They will probably enjoy the practice as they will see improvement and feel successful.
- For the children who need structured adaptations: practice on! They will need practice with the “hardware (adaptations) as well as the software (worksheets)” in order to achieve their personal best.
- BUT…..with those who haven’t a clue – the mystery still needs to be solved for them. So, if you child is a member of this group, there are two very important steps that you should take (here’s another list):
1. Download a free Vision Skill Checklist, “Spotting Red Flags in Vision Screening (1).” If your child is demonstrating some of the symptoms listed there, please make an appointment with your local Behavioral Optometrist for a vision assessment.
2. Talk with your child’s teacher about having the school occupational therapist (2) assess your child’s handwriting skills to determine the reason for his struggles. If the therapist is not able to assist you, please find one in your community who can.
When your child begins handwriting remediation to strengthen the visual-motor, visual-perceptual, gross- motor, and fine-motor skills (3) that are causing the problems, he should not be simply copying worksheets over and over. Please remember that. The activities he performs should be designed to work on those skills that need help.
And about the handwriting practice: QUALITY VERSUS QUANTITY. He should be provided with just enough practice to fill about 5-10 minutes of time during his day, about 5 days a week. When this “homework” begins to look messy, it’s time for a break. If the work doesn’t get done completely because of the need to stop too often, then the practice work needs to be re-evaluated to determine where the breakdown is occurring. It’s better to have him produce good quality work – and build good habits – then to produce poor quality work and to reinforce the habits that caused the distress in the first place.
I hope this information will help you and your child to see that Handwriting IS Fun!
(1,3) Collmer, Katherine J. “Links and Resources.” Links and Resources. Handwriting With Katherine, 25 May 2014. Web. 30 June 2014.