The act of writing by hand can be defined as a complex perceptual motor skill that depends on the maturation and integration of a number of cognitive, perceptual, and motor skills, and is developed through instruction. Writing by hand involves several sub-skills:
- Visual-perceptual skills – the ability or capacity to accurately interpret or give meaning to what is seen, such as recognizing the letter A when shown the letter A and being able to distinguish the letter A from the letter B
- Orthographic coding – the ability to remember what letters, letter patterns and words look like when writing
- Motor planning and execution – the ability to carry out a motor movement such as kicking a ball, which is called praxis
- Kinesthetic feedback – the brain’s ability to know where the body or a part of the body is located in space without seeing it, such as being able to touch your nose with your eyes closed
- Visual-motor coordination – the ability to match motor output with what is seen, such as being able to hit a ball with the bat
Just as some people are more coordinated than others in sports, some people are more coordinated than others in the physical act of writing. Handwriting, as with many other neurological processes, largely goes unnoticed unless it doesn’t work well. Even when noticed, handwriting problems are often poorly understood.
When students have dysgraphia (trouble with writing), they are frequently labeled as “lazy”, “unmotivated” and/or “oppositional” because they avoid writing. At times, they are able to produce neat handwriting but only at a very slow pace. They are often accused of writing neatly “when they want to”. When required to write, students who have handwriting problems often engage in avoidance behaviors such as taking trips to the bathroom, sharpening their pencils or getting Kleenex from their backpacks. Sometimes they just sit and stare. Even suffering the consequences of disrupting the class and may be less painful for them than writing. Work that could be completed in one hour may take three hours because they put off the dreadful task of writing.
Because written language is generally communicated via the pen, the pencil or the computer, handwriting is an important component of a neurodevelopmental or psychoeducational evaluation because it can have a great impact on school success.
Some Common Warning Signs of Dysgraphia
- Awkward, cramped and/or inefficient pencil grasp
- Messy and hard to read penmanship
- Legible writing that is labor-intensive and slow to produce
- Inconsistent letter formation and spacing between letters and words
- Trouble remembering what letter patterns look like
- Trouble remembering motor sequence for writing letter
- Poor spatial planning on paper
- Avoidance of writing tasks
- Quickly tires when writing
- Complains of hand hurting when writing
- Pace of writing and copying is too slow to keep up with class
- Trouble organizing thoughts on paper
- Trouble thinking and writing at the same time
- Greater ability to express thoughts orally than in written form
People who have poor handwriting may nevertheless compose superior pieces of written composition. Students with poor graphomotor skills may bypass their handwriting problems by using computers and voice-activated software.
Ayres, A. J. (1985). Developmental dyspraxia and adult onset apraxia. Torrance, CA: Sensory Integration International.
Berninger, V., Yates, C., Cartwright, A., Rutberg, J., Remy, E., & Abbott, R. (1992). “Lower-level developmental skills in beginning writing.” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary journal, 4, 257-280.
Cermak, S. A. & Larkin, D. (2002). Developmental coordination disorder. Albany, NY: Delmar, a division of Thomson Learning.
Deuel, R. K., & Doar, B. P. (1992). “Developmental manual dyspraxia: A lesson in mind and brain.”Journal of Child Neurology, 7.99-103.
Thomas, A. and Thorne, G. (2010). Differentiating instruction: 150+ targeted strategies for diverse learners. Metairie, LA: Center for Development and Learning.
Thomas, A. (2010). How minds work: The key to motivation, learning and thinking. www.cdl.org.
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