Fine motor control, handwriting and spelling

There seems to be a strong link between poor handwriting and spelling difficulty. This does not mean that if you have good handwriting, you will be able to spell well, but research does suggest there is a strong correlation between weak handwriting and poor fine motor control issues, hand to eye co-ordination and the ability to spell well.

As professionals, we see children every day who find writing and holding a pencil correctly very difficult. Children may experience discomfort or aching in the fingers, hand, arm, shoulder or neck muscles. If they experience such discomfort, they may feel irritable, their attention span may be low or they may even feel stressed out.

If you suspect your child has difficulty with pencil control or has weak fine or gross motor control problems, it is very important to have your child assessed by an Occupational Therapist (OT). An OT will assess your child’s visual motor integration (VMI), hand to eye co-ordination and primitive reflexes to find out if there are any underlying neurological problems. The OT will produce a report and a programme of exercises and recommendations to help your child.

Cursive Handwriting and Holding Your Pencil Correctly

When it comes to helping your child with her handwriting, it’s important to understand how your child is controlling the fine motor skills necessary for legible writing. Good posture is important for good handwriting skills. Children should be taught to hold their writing instruments properly using the ‘tripod grip’. Small adjustments in holding the pencil can help enormously, as can changing the pencil size or adding a padded pencil grip.

To hold the pencil correctly using the ‘tripod grip’, the pencil should be positioned so that there is equal pressure between the thumb, the side of the middle finger and the tip of the index finger (the first three fingers including the thumb). All fingers are bent slightly, and the pencil is positioned between all three fingers. A triangular pencil or pen or a pencil grip inserted on to a standard pencil is particularly useful for positioning the fingers correctly. Nowadays, you can buy both pencils and pens that have been designed with indentations to position fingers correctly.

Please do not allow your child to hold his crayon incorrectly. If your child picks up a crayon as a toddler in a fist grip, it is going to be much, much harder to get him to hold his pencil correctly later on. Many children find handwriting tremendously difficult, and the most common reason is that they were not encouraged to perceiver with the tripod grip. After the age of six to seven, it is tremendously hard for children to undo, possibly four or five years of incorrect handwriting technique – you need to pay special attention to this.

As children write, encourage them to form one letter at a time, as they write, paying attention to letter order and the size and spacing of letters and words. Use lined paper to help them write in straight lines. You can use wide lined paper for younger or less practised children and narrow lined paper for older or more adept children. When you are happy that all the letters are being formed correctly, you can introduce groups of letters.

 Try a tactile approach if your child is having difficulty forming certain letters. Make 3-D letters out of play dough or clay. Let your child feel the shape and make them herself. She could then trace over them with her finger and repeat that tracing in sand, using paint or just on a flat surface. When it comes to writing on paper, find a fun pencil perhaps with a wobbly head on the top to make the whole experience fun.

I believe children should learn cursive handwriting from the start. Cursive handwriting involves flowing, almost rhythmic movements, which reinforces patterns and spatial awareness. However, many children learn how to print letters first and then move on to learning joined up (cursive) handwriting later. Dyslexic children find it difficult to learn two different types of handwriting. The flowing nature of joined up writing reduces the problems children have with confusing letters or writing ‘b’ and ‘d’ backwards. There are theories that suggest that well-formed, flowing handwriting from the outset is linked to spelling ability, as it reinforces left-to-right directionality and spelling patterns.

When you are exploring handwriting aids look out for resources that emphasise teaching body and spatial awareness and body posture. If your child is left-handed, look for special help with that since left-handers have to position the pen and paper differently to move across the page fluidly as they write. Some other things to check for include your child’s visual perception, ocular motor control (using the eyes) and hand-to-eye coordination, and remember to focus on letter orientation and sequencing.

Many schools have their own handwriting policy, so check with your school to make sure you are teaching your child the same way they are. They may even be able to give you a copy of their handwriting programme to practise at home.

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