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How can you tell when a child has handwriting difficulties? And what can parents do about it? Occupational therapist Sheilagh Blyth explains.

Handwriting difficulties interfere both with a child’s ability to write, and to express ideas. A child has to synchronise what they wish to write with fine motor skills, attention, memory, and organisation of language. It is a juggling act that culminates in an automatic process which is expected to be achieved by the age of 8 years.

What are the signs of a handwriting difficulty?

Sometimes it is hard to ascertain whether the problem is a case of a child taking time to acquire crucial writing skills or not. If a child has more than one of the following complications, it is likely that he/she has handwriting difficulties:

  • Writes too hard or soft
  • Reverses letters
  • Fidgets when writing
  • Does not angle the paper
  • Writes letters incorrectly
  • Holds a pencil awkwardly
  • Writes slowly
  • Struggles to copy from the board
  • Does not recognise letters
  • Wraps thumb around the pencil
  • Forgets letter shapes
  • Poor vocabulary
  • Cannot write the alphabet

What are the causes of handwriting difficulties?

Handwriting difficulties can be a result of reduced core body strength, reduced fine motor control or reduced visual perceptual skills.

Body strength is crucial: without it children can slump on the table when writing. If you imagine a crane, the arm of the crane cannot pick up and move items if it is on an unstable surface. The same is true of the human body.

A key skill to handwriting is being able to sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor.

Good body stability helps a child control their arm movements. Activities that improve body strength are swimming and outdoor games that involve jumping, balancing and swinging.

If a child seems to be holding a pencil awkwardly or hooking their wrist they may have reduced fine motor skills.

Over the years play has become more technology-based. As a result we are now seeing more children experiencing fine motor difficulties. Old-fashioned games such as posting pennies into a money box help a child learn how to use the same three fingers they need to hold a pencil.

Only when children have developed their hand skills can they develop the muscle memory skills needed to write at speed.

The last area is visual perceptual skills: this is the ability to see and recognise a shape in terms of its features, whether seen as a whole or partially. This is different from having 20/20 vision.

If a child cannot recognise the alphabet they may have reduced visual skills.

These skills are often learnt when a child completes a dot-to-dot puzzle, a maze and spot the difference. A good game to play is to adapt ‘I spy’ and play it with shapes, for example 'I spy with my little eye something that is round'.

How can parents address this at home?

The best way to work on handwriting at home is not to do regular handwriting practice.

Allow children to play outdoor games that involve using gross motor movements which will develop core body strength. Give them intricate fine motor games to do. Encourage visual perceptual skills by completing how to draw animals in stages, or spot the difference puzzles.

One of my favourites to help pencil control is ‘Playdough football’. You need two players, two colours of dough and one goal, which I often make out of two random objects next to each other eg pen and stapler. Each person must pinch off a piece of dough and roll it into a ball in their writing hand, using only their thumb, first and second finger. Then they flick the ball to a goal post defended by the opponent. I often ask for five balls of dough and the winner is whoever scores the most goals. This game encourages the use of the three fingers needed for a tripod grip and eye hand coordination.

The key is to make handwriting fun and with the least amount of pressure. If you wish to practice handwriting try to link it into a topic they are interested in or one they are learning at school.

Discuss it with school

Handwriting is a physical developmental process. If you are concerned talk with the child's class teacher to understand what has been observed in class. It is possible that what a child ‘writes’ at home or at school can be completely different.

If you still have concerns then it may be advisable to organise a handwriting assessment by an occupational therapist.

Sheilagh Blyth is a children’s occupational therapist and author and founder of the Enable Me Method


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