Teaching Handwriting

Handwriting can often reflects the writer's training, character and environment. Collectively, the handwriting of a population is a reflection of educational thinking. Attention to teaching handwriting in the primary grades can benefit many youngsters, including those with learning disabilities (LDs) involving handwriting, which may accompany reading disabilities, nonverbal learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

Even in the 21st century, when so much communication is done orally, by phone, or via keyboards through email, social networks or text messaging systems, handwriting remains an important life skill. Handwriting is a basic tool used in many subjects, and poor handwriting can have a pervasive effect on school performance. Labored handwriting creates a drain on mental resources needed for higher level aspects of writing, such as attention to content, elaboration of details, and organization of ideas.

In the earliest grades, handwriting is linked to basic reading and spelling achievement. Attention to the linkages among handwriting, reading and spelling skills can help reinforce early achievement across these areas. The early years of schooling are especially critical for handwriting instruction. Once children have formed counterproductive habits in handwriting, those habits can be difficult to change. Even for young children, handwriting instruction should occur in the context of a broader program of written expression in which children learn many other writing skills and develop motivation to write. Developing a good posture is very important. Sitting in an awkward position can cause headaches, fatigue and pain in the shoulder, arm or hand. It can also slow down a child's writing. Children will be able to sustain writing for longer if they become used to sitting comfortably.

If children are to develop a fluent and fast handwriting style, they must learn to hold a pencil with a grip that is relaxed but allows for efficient control. Experts agree that children should be encouraged to hold the pencil between the thumb and forefinger with the pencil resting on the third finger. The thumb and forefinger should also be able to move slightly so that very fine movements required for writing are possible. Commercial pencil grips, or triangular pencils, can be used to encourage this hold but their use must be monitored as they can be misapplied. Care should be taken that children do not grip the pencil too tightly as this produces tenseness in the arm and shoulder and also increases pressure on the paper.

At least 10 percent are left-handed - with a slightly higher proportion among males. Teachers should employ a few simple strategies when teaching handwriting to left-handed children, such as modeling letter formation with their left hand, placing left-handed children on the left of right-handed children to prevent their writing arms from clashing, and putting a mark at the left side of the page to avoid mirror-writing from the right. Writing from left to right is more difficult for left-handed children. They should, therefore, be given more attention in the classroom to ensure that they do not learn bad habits.

Children should learn a highly consistent way to form a given letter every time they write it. Although some letters, such as f and t, require lifting the pencil from the paper to make a second stroke, letter formation should be taught using a continuous stroke whenever possible. When children are learning to form a new letter, it is helpful to begin with large movements such as forming the letter in the air, using a sweeping movement with the entire arm, not just the hand. This practice should emphasize learning the motor pattern with correct formation of the letter rather than writing the letter on paper with perfect legibility or size.

Children appear less likely to confuse visually similar letters if they have learned one letter of a confusable pair prior to introduction of the other letter of the pair. It can be helpful to teach children to form confusable letters differently. It also is useful to distinguish different standards for legibility depending on the purpose for writing; for example, in taking notes, "messy," handwriting is acceptable as long as children can easily read their own writing.

Assessment of handwriting should incorporate observations of execution, legibility and speed of writing. Execution includes correct and consistent pencil hold, posture and letter formation. Legibility involves the readability of letters, as well as spacing within and between words. Speed is important as children advance beyond the first few grades so that they can use writing efficiently.

Teaching Handwriting: Selected full-text books and articles

Assessing Handwriting Achievement By Ediger, Marlow Reading Improvement, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 2002
Occupational Therapy for Children By Jane Case-Smith; Jeanne Robertson; Jody Fulks; Ted Bolte Mosby, 2001
Librarian's tip: Chap. 18 "Prewriting and Handwriting Skills"
Helping Children with Reading and Spelling: A Special Needs Manual By Rea Reason; Rene Boote Routledge, 1994
Librarian's tip: Part III "Spelling and Handwriting"
Handbook of Learning Disabilities By Karen R. Harris; H. Lee Swanson; Steve Graham Guilford Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 21 "Preventing Written Expression Disabilities through Early and Continuing Assessment and Intervention for Handwriting and/or Spelling Problems: Research into Practice"
Day-to-Day Dyslexia in the Classroom By Joy Pollock; Elisabeth Waller; Rody Politt RoutledgeFalmer, 2004 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "Handwriting"
Are Slanted Manuscript Alphabets Superior to the Traditional Manuscript Alphabet? By Graham, Steve Childhood Education, Vol. 70, No. 2, Winter 1993
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