Why is Handwriting Hard?

Handwriting is one of those things that we use constantly throughout our day. Most of us don’t even think about it anymore. We use it so much that it has just become natural for us but what about our kids that are learning to write? Have you ever had trouble trying to read a child’s handwriting? Writing in a legible way is more than just having the ability to form letters. Writing is a complex process. Let’s take a look at the different components that go into handwriting and why it can be difficult for some children.

Let’s start by looking at the physical components necessary for handwriting.

  • Core strength – I know. You are thinking,” Core strength? But we use our hands and fingers for writing, what difference does my core strength make?” Most of the time we are writing, we are sitting at a table or desk. If a child lacks the core strength to maintain appropriate posture while seated, it can have a negative impact on their ability to effectively use their hands. Think about when you are tired. Do you sit with a slumped posture? Your shoulders are rounded and maybe you are using your arms to lean on the table to help hold yourself up. If this is your posture, it will be hard to effectively position your arm where it needs to be to effectively write.
  • Shoulder strength – In order to effectively use your hand for writing, you must first be able to place your hand where it needs to be and have the strength to be able to keep it there. Shoulder strength is what allows us to place our arm where it needs to be for functional use.
  • Hand strength and appropriate pencil grip – Most people hold a pencil with their first two fingers and thumb which is known as a tripod grasp. This position allows one to control the pencil with their fingers instead of using their entire arm during writing tasks. Using more than just these fingers can result in muscle fatigue while writing. If a child knows that writing is going to make their arm and hand tired or achy, they may rush to complete the task so they don’t have this negative side effect. For more on grip and hand strength, this blog post gives some ideas on how to build necessary hand strength for handwriting.

Next, let’s consider the letters themselves.

  • Letter awareness – Before a child can learn to write letters, they must have adequate letter awareness and knowledge of letters. If a child is in a classroom and they are asked to write the letter S on their paper, that child must have the ability to visualize the letter S in their mind so they know what they need to write. Letter awareness can be built using multisensory experiences so that the shape of the letter becomes ingrained in their brain. If a child is so focused on trying to remember the shape of the letter, it is going to be harder for them to form the letter using a pencil. Until letter awareness is fully established, children may need an example of the letters to refer to when they are practicing their writing.
  • Proper letter formation – There are numerous ways to write a letter. However, for improved function, using appropriate letter formation is important. All capital letters should start at the top. When writing a capital letter, it is common for us to pick up our pencil and use multiple strokes to form the letter. However, lower-case letters are generally written using a single stroke. Those that require a cross or dot such as f, t, I, j are exceptions to the rule. Other exceptions to the rule are k, x, and y. If a child is using multiple strokes to complete other lower-case letters, it requires more work and can result in decreased fluency when writing.

Ok, great, so your child has the necessary strength components and can properly form their letters, but it is still hard for you to read their writing. There are more components that could impact the writing.

Consider the impact of sizing and spacing on legible handwriting

  • Sizing – Capital letters are easy, they are all supposed to be the same size on the paper. However, lower-case letters can be tricky. Most letters are supposed to be half the height on the upper-case letters. But then you have those tall letters that use the entire line and those descending letters that extend below the line. If a child writes using proper letter formation, but their sizing is incorrect it can make reading the handwriting harder.
  • Spacing – Spacing of letters can be broken into a couple of components
    • Making sure your letters are appropriately seated on the line rather than floating above it one aspect of spacing that can impact legibility.
    • The other is the spacing between letters, words, and sentences. If a child runs their letters together during writing, the reader might determine which letters go together to form words or sentences. Proper spacing of letters and words allows the reader to focus on what is being written instead of concentrating on trying to separate the letters into words which improve legibility.

Wow, there are a lot of things that go into making writing legible. But wait, we still aren’t done. So far, we’ve discussed the physical and motor components of writing, but did you know that writing is a visual task as well? Close your eyes and write the alphabet on a piece of paper. I bet you can probably do it and it is probably even legible. This is because you have developed muscle memory in how to form the letters. However, if I gave you some information and asked you to copy it onto your own paper, you cannot do that without using your vision.

Let’s look at the visual components of handwriting.

  • Visual acuity – Visual acuity is how clearly you can see things. This is what the optometrist is looking at when you go get your eyes checked and they keep asking you which picture is clearer, A or B? Imagine trying to write something when you can’t clearly see what it is you are supposed to be writing. Sometimes a trip to get your child’s eyes checked and glasses may help to alleviate the problem.
  • Near point copying – This is when you are copying a text from an example that is located right next to the paper you are writing on. How many times has your child had to copy the question out of the book before they can answer it on a homework assignment? This task involves near point copying. This requires you to be able to have the eye movements to look back and forth between the book and your paper as well as the ability to quickly find your place on the page. This type of copying may require you to slightly turn your head, but many times, you can move back and forth using just your eye gaze. If a child is struggling with this, it can make writing tasks very time consuming and tiring.
  • Far point copying – This is similar to near point copying, only instead of the paper you are copying from being close to where you are writing, the copying is from a distance. Think of this as those times the teacher writes the assignment on the board and asks your child to copy it into their assignment notebook at the beginning of class. This generally requires greater head and neck movements as well as giving your eyes the time to adjust from looking at something from a distance to focusing on something close as you resume your writing.
  • Visual-motor integration – Visual-motor integration is the ability to use your vision and motor skills simultaneously. Handwriting requires the ability to use your vision to see what you are doing and coordinate your movements at the same time to write. It also involves the ability to look at and understand what you are writing. This includes the ability to recognize mistakes as they are being made so that you can correct them as they happen. This is a complex process that takes place in the brain.

Writing is a complex process that once we learn can become automatic. However, when a child has difficulty with handwriting, it is necessary to consider where they are experiencing a problem. Working with an occupational therapist who is skilled in breaking down the task will help to identify the deficit and work to create a plan to help improve handwriting skills

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