Why Is Handwriting So
Handwriting is one of the most challenging fine-motor tasks a child is required to learn in school. There are many different skills involved and if a child has difficulty in any of these areas she may find writing to be frustrating. Before we go over these skills, please remember that use of paper and pencil is just a medium for the much more important skill of communication.

Many children are highly successful with use of a keyboard, voice activated computer, scribe or tape recorder to compensate for writing difficulties. Just think of the brilliant cosmologist and author, Stephen Hawking who is almost totally paralyzed or the highly successful  physician who can barely write legibly (some take handwriting courses designed for physicians!) and you will realize that a person can overcome the disability of dysgraphia.

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What is Dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is the inability to write legibly.  Many children with learning disabilities experience difficulty with handwriting, but the term Dysgraphia refers to extremely poor handwriting. My experience as an occupational therapist has been that many children learn how to form letters and words legibly when copying in a quiet, one on one situation such as during an evaluation. But their performance deteriorates when they are asked to write sentences in a busy classroom where they need to integrate creative thoughts, grammar, spelling, punctuation and  remember letter formations often under a time restraint. This is often the case with children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder who have difficulty organizing and sequencing, children with weak language processing and children with visual or perceptual processing problems.

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What Skills are Required for Handwriting?

Visual Attention

babyinpackFostering  visual attention begins at a very young
age when parents point
out objects in the
environment and pictures in books. Parents
can encourage longer attention spans by providing
activities that are of high interest such as musical
mobiles or simple black and white books. Babies
who visually explore the world when perched
from a carrier are also receiving the movement

stimulation that lays the ground work for developing fine motor coordination. 

Television does the opposite. It teaches children to attend for
short periods of time, in a stationary position with little eye or
head movement.  

copyingfrombookAs a child gets older, the visual demands
increase. Preschool age children learn to
scribble, discriminate shapes and find their
favorite toy in a packed closet.

An older child must be able to smoothly move the eyes along
the paper to read
or complete a maze and move the eyes back
and forth from the book to a blackboard or
paper in order to copy.
It might be a challenge to find a math problem on a busy page
full of words and pictures. Please visit the page Promoting Visual Skills
for more information on visual skills.

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Motor Planning Skills and Body Awareness
babyclimbingslideToddlers are very busy learning about how to
move their bodies in space.
Motor planning is
a term that refers to the ability to plan, organize
and execute a sequence of movements. This
little girl is practicing the sequence involved in
climbing up the steps, rotating her body in order to come
down and then running back to repeat the fun.

She is also developing body awareness and
learning about spatial relationships as she
judges the distance she has to move her foot
to reach the next step and how much force to use
as she swings her legs over the top. 

Lots of activities such as this set the ground work for children
to develop the motor planning
skills to move the pencil to
form letters and the body awareness to move the hand just
right amount to control letter size and spacing. An older
child with good body awareness will
be able to write his name
with his eyes closed.
For more information on motor planning
please visit the page What is Sensory integration?

Upper Extremity Strength and Bilateral Coordination

wheelbarrowwalking Children naturally love to engage in gross motor
activities. Putting weight on the arms
wheelbarrow walking or hanging from a bar
strengthens the upper extremity. Strong shoulders
enable the child to stabilize the arm while
controlling the pencil. A child also needs a strong
trunk in order to maintain her sitting posture at a

hangingonbarGross motor activities such as these also
promote the bilateral coordination necessary
to control paper and pencil. Bilateral coordination
is a fancy term for using both hands together.
A child must be able to use both hands together
well in order to stabilize the writing paper
while using the pencil with the dominant hand.

buttonsOf course, many fine motor activities such as
opening and closing fasteners on a doll also help
to develop bilateral coordination. Bilateral activities
also help the child to develop a hand dominance.



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lefthandpointingHand Dominancerighthandpointing

Most children have a hand dominance by age 7 years although
many have a dominance much earlier.  Consistent use of the
same hand to write is important in order to develop skill with
that hand. 

Hand strength
embossingThis girl is rubbing a crayon over a piece of
paper placed over a textured wall paper
sample. She needs to press down hard in
order for the designs to appear on the white
paper. Her left hand is also working hard to
keep the paper stable. 
A child needs good
hand strength to control the movement of
the writing tool and to stabilize the paper.

Wrist Position

chalkboardA Child needs to position the wrist correctly
in slight extension (the position your wrist is
in  when waving). Working in the vertical plane
like this girl is doing at the chalkboard puts
the wrist in the correct position for writing. 

Some children hook their wrist which makes
it more difficult to control the pencil and may
benefit from using a slant board at the desk.

Hand Control

Writing requires the child to control the hand
with fine movements and eye-hand coordination.

toypliersActivities such as cutting with scissors and
using toy pliers to pick up small objects help
develop control. This is the same control
required to manipulate a pencil in a tripod grasp.
The tripod grasp is considered the most efficient
and comfortable writing grasp. However, many
people have different types of grasps and don't
have any writing problems.

The tripod grasp uses the middle and index fingers and thumb to
control the fine movements required for handwriting. In a mature
tripod grasp the middle finger provides support below the pencil.   tripod
The ring and pinky fingers are bent and resting
comfortably on the table.

Discriminating Left and Right

velcroChildren need to know their left from right in
order to understand the directions used in
letter formation. They also need to learn that
in America writing moves in the left to right
and top to bottom directions.

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Working Left to Right

This girl is working left to right to match pieces of Velcro to
their backings. This also teaches her that the short vertical
lines fit between the long horizontal lines much like letters
fit between writing paper lines.


legosChildren must have sequencing skills in
order to form letters correctly, spell words
and form sentences. Many fine-motor activities
such as putting little Lego people together
before attaching them to a board require
sequencing. Very young children learn
sequencing skills as they recite the ABC song

and perform  movements while singing Head Shoulders Knees
and Toes

Visual Discrimination

Visual discrimination refers to the ability to
perceive differences in visual stimuli.
children's toys are designed to teach differences
in size, color, shape and
the spatial relationships
between one part of the toy to another part
such as puzzle
pieces when they fit into a board. 

Reading and writing require the child to make many
discriminations such as whether the letter is a  b  or a  d ,
are the big C and small c the same letters and is the 0 still
an 0 if the circle is not completely closed? 
Spatial relations is the perceptual awareness
of the position of oneself or objects relative
to other objects.
Good spatial relations skills
are required to copy dot designs, play Tic
Tac Toe, draw a picture of person and  makes
spaces between words.

Visual Memory

visualmemoryA child must have the visual memory to be
able to retain the learning required for reading
and writing.  Many games such as the card
game Concentration help to develop visual
. This girl is turning over two cards
trying to find a pair that matches by

remembering each card's position from previous turns.

For more information about visual discrimination and visual
please visit  Barbara's Perceptual Game.

Please visit Handwriting Resources for lots of information about
handwriting programs, books and websites.

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©2008 Barbara Smith

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