Handwriting is a motor and perceptual skill that can be improved through practice, repetition, feedback, and reinforcement.
Handwriting is a complex skill that is a part of nearly every class in school. It is estimated that 30-60% of the school day is spent writing. It is also estimated that 25% of students in general education classrooms have difficulty printing.
Handwriting is a learned skill and not just a consequence of normal development. Based on current research, the best practice for handwriting instruction is a task-oriented approach based on the motor learning theory. That means the best way to work on handwriting skills is through direct instruction with specific skill training. Research has shown that handwriting is not only important for communication but also has been proven beneficial in other areas such as helping children recognize and remember letters more easily than if they typed, having a significant impact on other academic skills such as spelling, and also contributing to improved conceptual memory and recall of information. As occupational therapists, handwriting is one of the areas we focus on in the school system setting as it is a big part of their occupation of being a student.
When understanding the act of handwriting there are two major components to consider:
- How is the student holding the writing utensil? Are they holding at the top of the pencil or the bottom? How many fingers are they using to hold the utensil? Is it functional?
- What does the writing look like on paper? Is it legible? Are the letters formed properly? Is there appropriate spacing between letters in a word and words in a sentence? Are letters sized to fit between the lines on the paper?
Skills required to be able to complete the act of handwriting:
- Postural/Shoulder Stability
- Bilateral Coordination
- Hand Strength
- Fine Motor Skills
- Visual Motor Integration
Postural Control: In order to write, a child needs to be able to maintain a stable base of support to sit upright in their chair. When sitting on a chair, the child’s feet should be flat on the ground with their knees and hips bent to approximately 90º.
Activities for Improving Postural Control:
- Obstacle courses, crawling, and climbing
- Activities leaning on arms/putting weight through arms and shoulders (such as a puzzle)
- Unsupported sitting
Development of Shoulder Stability: We have to have good shoulder stability to be able to perform precise movements and control distal movements with hands and fingers. In my experience, I have seen children have large sizing when completing handwriting due to poor shoulder stability.
Activities to Develop Shoulder Stability:
- Yoga poses
- Animal walks
- Writing on a vertical surface
- Wall press/ chair pushes
Hand Strength: Hand strength and fine motor skills rely on the ability to control and coordinate the small movements in their hands and fingers. The hand needs adequate strength to hold onto a writing utensil and to write with appropriate pressure. Mature fine motor skills are needed to produce writing by moving the pencil with the fingertips as opposed to using the whole hand.
Activities to Develop Grasp and Fine Motor Skills:
- Using tweezers or tongs to pick up small objects
- Pegboard activities
- Craft activities
- Lacing or threading
- Playing with play-doh
Visual Motor Integration: This is the ability to take in visual information and produce a motor output such as written work. This factors into near and far point copying, spacing, and keeping written work within the lines of the paper.
Activities to Develop Visual Motor Skills:
- Copying basic patterns and shapes
- Tracing activities
Foundational Skills for Writing: Pre- Writing Lines
The learning progression is imitating, copying, and writing letters and words from memory. Between ages 2 and 5 these are the developmentally appropriate lines and shapes, ranging from horizontal lines to the formation of an X. These are the foundations to be able to form letters and numbers. If a child is having trouble with letter formations, you can go back and make sure they can draw all of the pre-writing lines such as straight and diagonal lines.
-Krystan Inman, COTA/L