This is Sam. Sam is frustrated. He is frustrated because, despite being intelligent and knowing what he wants to say, he just cannot get it down on paper the way it should look and so that others can read it. Sam has difficulties with handwriting … and he is not alone.
Because handwriting is such a complex skill, there are many children who have difficulty mastering it. This may cause frustration and distress and affect a child’s desire to write. It may also cause anxiety for the parents and teachers who watch the child struggle to put his or her ideas on paper. Not all difficulties are the same or caused by the same factors, and any assessment of the problem must take into account the age and experience of the child.
Some initial questions to ask if you are concerned about a child’s handwriting
- Has your child received any direct teaching of handwriting?
- What is the policy for handwriting in the school?
- Are the concerns about the handwriting shared by the teacher, the parents and the child?
- What are the main areas of concern?
- Legibility? (All or most of the words written can’t be read out of context.)
- Neatness? (The handwriting is messy or poorly controlled.)
- Comfort? (The child is experiencing pain, strain or discomfort when writing.)
- Pressure? (S/he is pressing too hard or not hard enough, or pressure within one piece of writing is variable.)
- Speed? (S/he writes very slowly, producing too little writing, or too fast, becoming inaccurate.)
- Motivation/enjoyment? (S/he is reluctant to write or gives up too easily.)
Answers to these questions can help to focus your thinking on the severity of the problem and what to do next.
How to assess handwriting difficulties
- Find out what ‘normal’ handwriting for a child of this age is like by looking at the work of other children in the class.
- Look at your child’s writing on the page (the product) but also watch how s/he writes (the process).
- Consult others who work with your child as to whether they share your concerns.
Further questions about handwriting difficulties
I’m concerned about my child’s handwriting. What should I do?
- Watch how he writes as well as what he produces.
- Look at his general coordination and his fine-motor coordination with other implements, e.g. knife and fork. This will give an indication if immature or impaired motor coordination might be contributing to the difficulty.
- Make sure he is in the correct environment for writing when at home, i.e. he is sitting at a table on a chair of the right height, and not lying on the floor, in front of the TV or in bed.
- Make sure his writing tools are suited to his age and capabilities (pencils not too thick or thin, pens not scratchy, etc.)
- Talk to him about how he feels about his handwriting? Does it worry him? Does he find it difficult? Does he care about it?
If the difficulties persist you need to consult the school.
Have a word with the class teacher and ask the following questions:
- Is s/he also concerned about the handwriting?
- How, and how often, is handwriting taught in class?
- Is there a particular approach or style which is being used with the children?
- How can you, at home, support what they are doing at school?
If you have done all these and you are still concerned, request a handwriting assessment from the Special Needs Coordinator (SENCo) in the school and take advice from him or her.
Do children grow out of the handwriting difficulty?
Evidence suggests that mild difficulties will be helped with good teaching and the maturation of the child. However, more severe problems persist into adolescence and beyond if appropriate intervention is not given.
Can all handwriting difficulties be cured?
Targeted intervention, either from an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist or a specialist teacher will make a noticeable difference for most children. There are a few, however, who may never manage to write well enough and fast enough to do themselves justice on paper. For them, keyboarding is an essential alternative.
Are difficulties always the result of poor teaching?
Good basic teaching, particularly at in the lower primary school, is important. However, there are some children who still find handwriting hard, despite having had lessons in school.
Does keyboarding solve all the problems?
It certainly helps a great number of children and young people to express their ideas at the level of their intellect and it should be encouraged. But handwriting should not be ignored completely for several reasons:
- There are times when handwriting is needed, e.g. for certain school subjects (such as maths, science) and in other everyday circumstances.
- There is some evidence that the physical act of handwriting helps the flow of ideas for written composition in ways which keyboarding doesn’t.
- Handwriting is very personal. It is an expression of a person’s identity, like how they dress or wear their hair. In adolescence it is common to find young people adopting a particular style of handwriting to suit their personal image. This should not be discouraged as long as the handwriting remains functional.
Is being left-handed the cause of the problem?
Being left-handed is not of itself a disability. The majority of left-handers write as well as their right-handed peers. Some evidence suggests that they develop fluency a little later than right-handers because they are ‘pushing’ the pen across the page rather than ‘pulling’ it, but this should not be a problem in the long-term.
Are handwriting problems more common in boys?
Girls seem to master good handwriting earlier than boys but boys catch up by the time they reach secondary school if there are no underlying difficulties. Handwriting difficulties are reported more frequently among boys than girls but most improve, given the right help.
How important is pen grip?
Many children with difficulties hold their pen or pencil in unconventional ways. However, so do many competent writers and there is no evidence to date to link poor pen or pencil grasp with poor handwriting. The dynamic tripod grasp (with the pen pinched between the ball of the thumb and the fore-finger, supported by the middle finger with the other fingers tucked into the hand) is recommended once the child is old enough to hold a writing implement. This minimizes the risk of strain and offers the greatest control. However, for those with handwriting difficulties, changing the grasp will not, of itself, solve the problems. It may be that the poor grasp and the poor handwriting are both visible symptoms of the same underlying factors.
My child’s handwriting is slow and untidy. Does this mean he is dyslexic or dyspraxic?
Many of the children who are diagnosed with a developmental disorder experience difficulties with handwriting. These include those with problems with reading and spelling, those with attention issues, those who are poorly coordinated and those with disorders on the autistic spectrum, but a handwriting difficulty on its own is not sufficient to indicate the presence of one of these disorders. A full assessment by an educational or clinical psychologist or paediatric neurologist is needed for an accurate diagnosis.
What is dysgraphia?
Dysgraphia means “disturbance of or difficulty with orthographic-motor integration” (i.e. handwriting). The term describes purely the handwriting difficulty as it is possible for this to be an isolated problem and not associated with a more general disorder. Some researchers have described sub-categories of dysgraphia in order to study it better, such as ‘surface dysgraphia’ or ‘deep dysgraphia’. These recognize that weaknesses in different types of processing may be responsible for the problem, such as motor control, visual perception and spelling difficulties. The term may be used differently by different professionals so it is important to check what is meant by the term in any one context.
Is it possible to improve a secondary school student’s handwriting once they have established a style, or does it automatically lead to a reduction in the child’s writing speed?
Changing a writing style is a major undertaking and is dependent upon the student’s drive and motivation to make that change. In the short term it will almost certainly lead to a reduction in the child’s writing speed. Continual practice of the new style with short, frequent practice sessions will be necessary. It can then be used in situations where speed is not a requirement, only putting it into ‘everyday’ use when it is thoroughly learned and has become faster and automatic. You may also find the book Handwriting in the Secondary School useful.
Adults with handwriting difficulties
Whilst handwriting difficulties are usually identified in childhood, there many adults who still find it difficult to write by hand. Some are unhappy with how their handwriting looks or they find that it does not serve them either because of poor legibility or speed, or because writing causes them discomfort. These problems may have remained uncorrected since childhood and still cause distress or embarrassment.
Little has been written or researched on handwriting difficulties in adulthood, partly because keyboard use has replaced handwriting for so many. The NHA is hoping to improve its provision for adults. In the meantime, please see our Resources for Adults for a list of publications and courses that might be helpful to adults concerned about their writing.