Investigating Poor Handwriting

“I can’t read this!”

How often have you come across this statement written across a child’s homework assignment? When a child has illegible handwriting, we often jump to conclusions, assuming laziness, lack of effort, or motivation. It becomes even more puzzling when their handwriting fluctuates, being readable at times and incomprehensible at others. But did you know that handwriting involves various underlying skills that combine to form the ability to write? Let’s explore these skills.

If your child or student is having problems with handwriting, watch for skills such as eye-hand coordination and motor planning as they write and you may find some clues to why he or she is having handwriting difficulty. Read on to find out more about how these and other underlying skills work together to help a child write.

Strength and Balance

We don’t usually associate body strength with handwriting, but it directly impacts a child’s ability to maintain proper posture while writing. Three crucial components contribute to this:

  1. Core strength – This refers to the strength of trunk muscles, including abdominals, back muscles, and pelvic stabilizers. Weakness in these muscles may cause a child to slouch or slide down in their chair while writing.
  2. Shoulder strength – Strong shoulders allow children to move their arms freely, enabling unhindered hand movement across the page. If shoulder strength is reduced, a child may lean on elbows or forearms while writing, limiting hand movement.
  3. Hand strength – Small hand muscles need adequate strength for holding writing tools and writing for extended periods. These muscles stabilize fingers for an appropriate pencil grasp and maintain hand position during writing. Weakness in these muscles leads to poor pencil grasp, insufficient pressure while writing, and complaints of hand pain or fatigue.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills involve the small hand movements required to handle objects. These skills play a significant role in controlling a pencil during writing. Poor fine motor skills may result in awkward pencil grasps or oversized letters. A child may drop the pencil or require two hands to position it.

Tactile Discrimination and Proprioception

Tactile discrimination and proprioception refer to a child’s ability to feel objects with their fingers, including their position and weight relative to the hand. These skills enable a child to sense the size, texture, and weight of a pencil, as well as its position in their fingers, without constant visual focus. Deficits in these skills may cause a child to grip the pencil too tightly or press down excessively on the paper while writing. They might also avoid writing if the pencil feels uncomfortable.

Hand Dominance and Right/Left Discrimination

Having a dominant writing hand is crucial for learning to write effectively. Consistently using the dominant hand helps a child learn motor patterns involved in writing more efficiently. The ability to differentiate between left and right also aids in understanding where to start writing on the page and how to position words and sentences correctly. Problems with hand dominance may result in difficulties with letter formation.

Eye-Hand Coordination

Eye-hand coordination refers to the ability to synchronize hand movements with visual input. When writing, children utilize eye-hand coordination to track their writing across the page or align letters on the writing line. Challenges in eye-hand coordination can cause writing to slant off the line or not begin at the paper’s margin.

Visual Perception

Visual perception encompasses a child’s ability to understand what they see, including differentiating between shapes, lines, and patterns (visual discrimination). It also involves perceiving a shape or object against a busy background (figure-ground), recognizing the completeness of a shape or object (visual closure), and remembering forms and shapes (visual memory). Visual perception significantly affects a child’s ability to recognize and reproduce letters accurately. Difficulties in this area can lead to letter formation issues, reversals, and problems with letter spacing while writing.

Motor Planning

Motor planning, or praxis, is the conscious ability to send signals from the brain to the body to perform an action. Writing is a complex action that requires advanced motor planning abilities. Tasks such as finger placement for holding the pencil, positioning the pencil correctly on the paper, recalling motor movements for letter formation, and transitioning between writing tasks all rely on motor planning. Poor motor planning skills can result in poorly formed letters, writing off the line or into margins, overly large or small handwriting, and inefficient pencil grasps.

Remember, all these underlying skills work together to enable a child to write. Often, multiple skills are affected when handwriting is illegible. If your child or student struggles with handwriting, observe their performance in these areas to uncover potential reasons for their difficulties. It’s important to note that they might write neatly for short periods or simpler tasks but struggle to sustain legibility during more complex writing assignments.

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