Handwriting is a skill that requires fine motor skills, perceptual skills as well as language skills. Just like with speech, we learn motor plans for making letters and going from one letter to the next. The inability to write can cause a cascade of academic, self-esteem and social issues. Students with writing or graphomotor problems are frequently called “lazy”, “unmotivated” and/or “oppositional” because they are reluctant to produce written work. Because they are sometimes able to write legibly if they write slowly enough, they are accused of writing neatly “when they want to”. This statement has moral implications and is untrue; for children with graphomotor problems, neat handwriting at a reasonable pace is often not a choice.
When required to write, children with written production problems frequently engage in numerous avoidance behaviors. They have to go to the bathroom; they need to sharpen their pencils; they need a Kleenex from their backpack. Sometimes they just sit and stare. Even disrupting the class and getting in trouble may be less painful for them than writing. Work that could be completed in one hour takes three hours because they put off the dreadful task of writing.
Many skills are needed to write legibly. Visual perception skills allow the ability to accurately discriminate patterns (letters/words) from each other. Students need to know what each letter and word pattern looks like and be able to retrieve them from memory which are orthographic coding skills. A third skill is motor planning and execution of the movements needed to write letters and word patterns without actually thinking about each movement. Kinesthetic feedback is the information about where are body is in space and the movements made that are sent back to the brain. This information allows the student to alter movements to achieve the desired written pattern. The last skill is visual motor coordination. The student visually watches the motor movements so that the writing stays on the paper and within the lines.
Depending on what areas the child is having trouble in, different symptoms are seen. For example, children who have trouble with holding the pencil too tightly, too loosely, or awkwardly or pushing too hard on the paper, could indicate difficulty with kinesthetic feedback. If there are difficulties discriminating the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’, then poor visual perceptual skills could be the cause. Not being able to remember how to form letters could indicate a deficit in orthographic coding.
In addition, there could be language issues that cause a child to have difficulty writing. Knowing grammatically what words sentences need to have, knowing the vocabulary of a variety of words, knowing how to spell the words and knowing how to organize their thoughts into a sentence/paragraph are all language based requirements for writing. A child needs to be evaluated to determine where the difficulties lie so that appropriate remediation can happen. There are multiple writing programs that can be used for graphomotor issues, but they must be matched to the areas the child struggles. A speech-language pathologist can evaluate issues which may underlie language based writing difficulties.
Below are some strategies for a variety of graphomotor problems:
- For children who have difficulty with orthographic coding, it may be helpful to tape an alphabet line to the corner of their desk for easy reference.
- Sometimes switching to cursive writing early on helps with motor movements – each letter flows to the next one. Sometimes staying with print instead of moving to cursive helps with remembering the orthographic codes.
- Students with graphomotor problems should be given extended time to complete written assignments and/or a reduction in the volume of written output. For example, if the exercise given is to correctly capitalize and punctuate sentences or a passage, these should be provided to the student in typed form so that he/she has to only correct the work, rather than write it and then correct it. Also, if the assignment is to answer the questions at the end of the chapter in social studies, the student should be required only to write the answers, not both questions and answers. Additionally, he/she should be allowed to state answers in short phrases. In other words, if the subject matter being assessed is knowledge of information presented in the social studies chapter, it is this that should be assessed, not how competent the student is with the physical act of writing, or how much writing interferes with his/her ability to demonstrate his/her knowledge of social studies.
- Children with handwriting difficulties may need to be given the opportunity to provide oral answers to exercises, quizzes, and tests.
- Learning to type is helpful for these students. Writing assignments should be done in stages. Initially, the child would focus only on generating ideas. Next, he/she would organize his/her ideas. Finally, the student would attend to spelling and mechanical and grammatical rules. There are computer software programs available with spell and grammar checks.
- Students with graphomotor problems may need to be provided with information presented on the board or on overheads in written form, such as teacher-prepared handouts or Xerox copies of other students’ notes.
- Children with handwriting problems should be provided with written outlines so that they do not have to organize lectures or class materials themselves. This becomes particularly important in junior high grades.
- Parents should be given the opportunity to purchase an extra set of textbooks for the purpose of highlighting, particularly for content area subjects. Also, notes may be made on Post-Its and then the Post-Its could be attached to a larger sheet.
- It is often necessary to use alternative grading systems for children with graphomotor problems. One grade would be given for overall appearance and mechanics of writing, and the second for content.
- When writing reports, it may be helpful for the student to identify his/her own errors and to correct these after learning specific strategies to do so. He/she would then list his/her most frequent errors in a workbook and refer to this list when self-correcting.
- It should be stressed to school personnel that slow work habits are often a result of graphomotor difficulties and do not reflect deficits in motivation.
- Electronic devices, such as the Franklin Speaking Spelling Ace may be helpful for students with handwriting problems.
- It will be important to put any needed accommodations into the child’s IEP or 504 plan for all teachers to follow:
- allow for verbal responses or a reduced/modified writing requirement on assignments, tests
- have a note taker, get copies of another student’s notes
- allow for audio recording of lectures
- allow for typed assignments to be submitted
- allow extra time for written assignments, tests, and quizzes
Summary of Why Some Kids Hate to Write by Glenda Thorne, PhD