Handwriting challenges ARE learning difficulties!
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
Handwriting challenges can create havoc with a student’s educational success. They present themselves through a wide array of signs and symptoms that for the most part are caused by hidden sources. Quite frequently, the very signs that should put up a red flag (1) that a student is experiencing handwriting problems are incorrectly identified as laziness, lack of motivation, and behavioral issues.
As a consequence, handwriting challenges have been ignored and overlooked as a valid learning difficulty.
When does handwriting receive a fair shake?
Poor handwriting does receive attention when it is associated with Dysgraphia, (2) as it is a symptom of that specific learning disability. Dysgraphia is a processing disorder that affects one’s ability “to write coherently, regardless of reading ability or intellectual impairment.” One of the symptoms of Dysgrapha can be poor handwriting skills.
For purposes of clarity, it is important to recognize the difference between handwriting and writing skills.
Handwriting is defined as “the activity of writing by hand.”
In contrast, writing is defined as the activity of “marking coherent words on paper and composing text.”
“Visual-spatial difficulties (are) trouble processing what the eye sees,”
while “Language processing difficulties (are) trouble processing and making sense of what the ear hears.” (3)
It is Important to note here that students who demonstrate symptoms of Dysgraphia most likely suffer from handwriting challenges, however, the presence of handwriting difficulties does not necessarily mean there is the presence of Dysgraphia.
Handwriting and Writing are Team Players
Handwriting and writing are developmental processes that are learned as a team, where children learn the motor skills needed (for handwriting) while learning the thinking skills needed to communicate on paper (writing). (3) Hence, challenges in handwriting skills can affect writing development due to slow, laborious fine- and visual-motor skills that interfere with composition. But these symptoms do not necessarily lead to the diagnosis of Dysgraphia. Generally, they do not lead to much more than a push for additional handwriting practice, an increase in frustration for the teacher and the student, and a diminished level of educational success. Handwriting challenges are indeed a learning difficulty. And it’s time that we recognized them as one.
What do good handwriting skills look like?
In order to accurately identify the presence of handwriting difficulties, we must be aware of the characteristics of efficient handwriting versus poor handwriting skills.
On the surface, good penmanship is identified by legible handwriting that is produced in a timely manner. The objective of good penmanship is to allow the writer to create and produce written material in such a way that it develops an effective line of communication between him and the reader. In order for communication to conclude in the desired result, it must be coherent and be completed with sufficient speed. Good penmanship can be presented as manuscript, cursive, or a variety of alternative handwriting styles.
Penmanship, simply stated, is the art of writing by hand. Efficient penmanship is not so simply defined, however, once the first layer of skin is pulled back to reveal the myriad of veins and arteries that feed its success…or failure.
What are the obvious signs of inefficient handwriting?
The outward appearance of poor penmanship becomes very obvious to a student as his teacher begins to point out that his work is messy, difficult to read, and incomplete. If a handwriting program is presented in a structured and guided manner, the student will be alerted to his errors during practice sessions and assisted in editing and correcting his work. The signs that a learning difficulty exists, however, come to light when the teacher and the student recognize that extra attention and additional practice have not made a significant difference in the quality of the penmanship. Usually the student’s written work habits consistently display:
- poor letter formation – open letters or reversals; varying letter sizes;
- inadequate spacing – either too little or too much space between letters and/or words;
- inappropriate spatial alignment – letters placed above or below the lines;
- slow, laborious speed – resulting in incomplete work or needing extra time;
- loss of place when copying from the board or a book – with omitted and/or misspelled words;
- and poor posture – with his head on his arm/desk or slouching in his seat.
These signs should alert educators and parents that the student’s difficulties lie below the surface and require additional guided instruction and remedial strategies, and possibly an assessment by an occupational therapist.
What are the underlying causes of inefficient handwriting?
As was discussed earlier, efficient handwriting is a developmental skill. It is such an important skill that it begins at birth and continues to develop throughout the toddler and preschool years. Those are the years for reaching, grasping, scribbling, and manipulating. These are the essential handwriting skills that are considered to be “child’s play” and should be encouraged throughout a child’s early life. Sometimes inefficient handwriting skills are the product of “too little play and too much instruction” during these early years. As children are rushed into the introduction of handwriting before their hands, eyes, and cognitive skills are ready, they develop poor habits that result in handwriting difficulties in kindergarten and beyond.
These difficulties can present themselves as:
- an inefficient pencil grasping pattern – resulting in an immature or deviant grasp;
- hand and/or finger fatigue – causing pain or resulting in a loose or too tight grasp;
- inappropriate letter formations – most likely letters starting from the bottom or reversals resulting from poor instruction; and
- insufficient automatic letter recognition – causing slow, laborious written work.
In addition to the development of these poor habits, the underlying causes of inefficient handwriting can be the result of inadequately developed:
- Body Awareness Skills – vital for directional concepts such as up/down, left/right;
- Midline Crossing Skills – required for developing hand dominance, and reading and handwriting scanning skills;
- Motor Planning Skills – necessary for planning and carrying out automatic movements of the shoulder, hand, and fingers;
- Visual Skills extending beyond 20/20 eyesight – needed for visual attention, discrimination of details, line and space positioning, and visual memory;
- Gross Motor Skills – necessary for efficient posture, appropriate eye alignment, and fluid arm and hand movements;
- Fine Motor Skills – needed for pencil control and efficient pencil grasp; and
- Cognitive Skills – Visual Memory in particular – required for automatic production of letters, words, and sentences to facilitate the creation of independent thought in writing.
Handwriting is a complex skill, built upon the foundation of these underlying skills; and it is only as solid as their efficiency. Ignoring handwriting difficulties results in
poorer grades, frustration, diminished learning, and a lower self-esteem.
Handwriting difficulties have not received a label; but that does not discount their importance in a child’s educational success. Handwriting may have taken second stage to other school subjects; however, handwriting difficulties should not. The success of a student’s educational experience depends upon addressing them.
As always, thanks for reading! I hope you will share this important information with those who work with children and their handwriting skills!
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who owns and operates a clinic that specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; the Wellness For Life: Cape Cod blog; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.