The Complexities of Handwriting

Developing handwriting is an extremely complex process, and one we take for granted…until a child presents with difficulties.

Here are just some of the factors which affect the acquisition of handwriting  –

Gross motor skills – such as dissociated movements of the head, neck, shoulders, elbow; core stability; correct posture; postural endurance; balance; tone; crossing midline; bilateral co-ordination

Fine motor skills – hand dominance; dissociated movements of the wrist and fingers; hand/finger strength, dexterity, speed and endurance; pencil grasp; proprioceptive awareness

Visual perceptual skills – discrimination; figure ground; position in space; spatial relations; visual memory; sequential memory; form constancy; space visualisation; closure

Occulo-motor skills – control of eye movement so that visual information can be received; dissociative movements – eye movements independent  of, but co-ordinated with, head movement; scanning and  tracking information; fixating on information

Visual motor integration – using visual information to produce an appropriate motor response;  accurate copying of shapes, letters and numbers

Motor planning – conceive, organize, and carry out a sequence of unfamiliar actions; executing the motor steps for each stage of letter/number/word production

Kinesthetic feedback – information about the location and movement of our body in space is sent to the brain…enables the production of an effective motor response and provides feedback about this movement

Orthographic coding – ability to store in memory and then recall from memory the motor patterns grapheme for letter and number grapheme

Attention – sustained attention to the task


And here are some good ideas to help with the development of the handwriting process –

1.  Develop shoulder girdle, elbow and wrist dissociation, strength and stability

gross motor games, sensory motor program, climbing equipment, animal walks, vertical work surface. eg. painting easel, chalk board

2.  Crossing the midline activities

hand that starts finishes! – no hand swapping

3.  Activities to establish hand dominance

laterality – right/left; bilateral activities with one hand taking the ‘lead’ role

4.  Develop hand/finger strength and control

Play Dough, hand/finger exercises ; fine motor games/toys; animal walks; activities to develop proprioception (joint position sense); lots of colour, cut and glue activities

5.  Complete hand/finger warm-ups before handwriting activities

6.  Encourage correct pencil grasp pattern – tripod or quadrupod

‘birdy beaks’; pencil grips; use chunky, triangular pencils

7.  Adopt a good seated posture

feet on floor, bottom at back of seat; correct sized furniture

8.  Visual motor activities

basic shape copy needs to be mastered first – circles, squares, triangles – use corner dots to assist; dot to dots; mazes; drawing

9.  Ensure left to right and top to bottom progression on the page

10.  Use QLD print letter outlines

repetition; laminated page; rainbow letters/numbers; progress from large to small

11.  Use green dot/red dot strategy

green for ‘go’ and red for ‘stop’ – for where letter formation starts and stops

12.  Use consistent verbal prompts when writing letters/numbers

eg. ‘b’ is ‘down and around’

13.  Use a multi sensory approach

make letters/numbers from playdough; draw in sand, with paint, etc; make collage letters/numbers

14.  Complete visual perceptual activities

discrimination, figure-ground, position in space, spatial relations, form constancy, closure, visualisation, memory, sequential memory

15.  Learn to write own name first

16.  Learn lower case letters first

17.  Teach in letter/number formation groupings

Carnine approach – straight, anticlockwise, clockwise, multi-directional

18.  Use the head, body, tail approach with lines

19.  Use one finger or one ice block stick spacing between words

20.  Copy letters/numbers

Commercially available handwriting books; worksheets


21.  Write letters/numbers from memory

develops motor plan; precursor to automaticity of handwriting

22.  Occulo-motor activities

eye tracking games

23.  Build attention to task

minimise distractions; clear, consistent instructions and prompts; preferential seating

And don’t forget lots of repetition/practise………and lots of praise

And that’s just the mechanics of the handwriting process…..before complex language skills (syntax, semantics, pragmatics) come into play.

If the process of handwriting is so difficult for a child that, even after ongoing support and input, literacy is adversely affected, then word processing should be considered as an option.  Word processing allows students to get their ideas down without the compounding effect of the actual handwriting process.  Children can also benefit from accessing word processing functions such as spell check and synonyms.

So, the next time you see a prep child pick up a pencil and write down some letters and numbers, be amazed at the complexity of the task they are undertaking!

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