The curious case of handwriting

What should be done about handwriting skills of children

The issue of slow and poor handwriting is a fairly serious educational challenge. Digitalisation is no reason for acceptance of poor handwriting among school-going children because writing has a role in the larger development of children and a few academic subjects (such as Maths) are far from being computer friendly. The neural processes involved in handwriting are tied to long term memory management, working memory management, ‘reading skills’ and critical and creative thinking. Writing is also training of the brain in terms of fine motor and brain coordination.

In the same breath, we accept the possibility that, within a decade, public exams will move away from pen & paper to digital.

A study headed by Virginia Berninger (a professor of educational psychology at University of Washington), who studies normal writing development and writing disabilities, looked at children’s ability to write alphabet, sentences, and essays using a pen and a keyboard. It has been found that children with and without handwriting disabilities were able to write more—and more quickly—when using a pen rather than a keyboard, to compose essays.

‘Children consistently did better writing with a pen when they wrote essays. They wrote more and they wrote faster,’ says Berninger. Only for writing the alphabet was the keyboard better than the pen. For sentences, results were mixed. But when using a pen, children across grade levels produced longer essays and composed them at a faster pace. In addition, fourth and sixth graders wrote more complete sentences when they used a pen.

‘People think language is a single thing. But it is not,’ says Berninger. ‘It has multiple levels like a tall building with a different floor plan for each storey. In the written language there are letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs, which are different levels of language. It turns out that they are related, but not in a simple way. Spelling is at the word level, but sentences are at the syntax level. Words and syntax (patterns for organising the order of words) are semi-independent. Organising sentences to create text is yet another level. That is why some children need help with their spellings while others need help in constructing sentences and in composing text with many sentences.’

Good handwriting is a matter of right, and it is one developmental domain where schools have had a strong focus for all their history of existence and there is no reason why schools should abdicate this task. Of course, good handwriting is a complex skill and calls for sustained attention and efforts at home and school on every child.

The following five are the broad dimensions impinging upon the quality of handwriting:

  1. Lack of focus on the quality of handwriting in all subjects – handwriting improvement must not be treated as exclusively a language issue.
  2. Lack of multi-pronged approach towards handwriting – such as frequent classroom discussions, plays, stories, action-songs, rhymes around good handwriting.
  3. Lack of awareness among parents of the various ways in which they can work with their children in ensuring a better handwriting and ensuring homes do not accept poor handwriting.
  4. Effective coordination between school and parents on all issues impacting handwriting.
  5. Lack of special classwork tasks on handwriting for those lagging behind in the quality of handwriting.

Importantly, when discussing handwriting of a particular student we must offer specific feedback on each of the important components of handwriting such as:

  1. Legibility of letters
  2. Legibility of words
  3. Overall impression of neatness
  4. Pressure and comfort in writing
  5. Time spent in writing a text

What must be done to improve handwriting?

Apparently, a lot can be done to improve handwriting. First and foremost, the sooner one starts work on handwriting the better. Here are a few actions to improve handwriting:

  1. More discussions on the importance of good handwriting – such as appreciation by one and all, higher self-esteem, faster note taking in class, being able to exchange notes with others.
  2. More attention to handwriting – avoiding high quantity homework if handwriting is also to be worked upon.
  3. More fine-motor exercises to improve muscular strength of hands.
  4. Improving writing habits, such as posture, position, grip, pressure
  5. Monitoring writing instruments used, such as type and width of pen
  6. Promoting child-specific styles, if possible.

As a matter of abundant precaution, it is important to know that a situation of no improvement in handwriting may be a sign of a deeper issue – what is called Dysgraphia – ‘a biological weakness leading to difficulty in writing’. Dysgraphia means “difficulty with orthography-motor coordination.” Orthography refers to the visual images of symbols, i.e. letter or words, and orthography-motor coordination involves seeing (or visualising) letters and words and attempting to write them down. The term describes handwriting difficulty.

Expectedly, we recommend that help must be sought from an occupational therapist or physiotherapist in case the handwriting problem continues after trying hard to improve it.

Joel Schwarz , (October 20, 2009), for kids, pen’s mightier than keyboard’ university of Washington

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