Being able to write comfortably, quickly, and automatically is still an important skill in the digital age. Attending to the details of letters as we learn to form them also supports learning and remembering their names. Poor handwriting is a common, and logical, reason for children to be referred for an assessment of their vision.
Learning to write is dependent on the development of the prerequisite visual and manual skills and their integration. Children struggle when they are asked to write before these skills are developed. They adopt immature pencil grips just to hold onto the pencil which makes the pencil more difficult to control. The index finger is the most dexterous and should guide the pencil with the thumb and middle finger in support. The hand and wrist must be relaxed so strokes can be made smoothly and the hand can process across the page. Since this is difficult, it is natural to get tense, but tension is inimical to the development and execution of efficient writing. Tension not only causes the hand to tire and ache, but the stress moves up the arm and changes the entire posture of the child.
Copying shapes has been used for decades to assess child development. The ages when children can draw the basic shapes have not changed since Arnold Gesell started testing this in the 1930s. For example, most children do not make an adequate diamond until the age of seven (with a wide variation in when this is achieved) but we now expect all children to know all of their letters upon entering kindergarten. For comparison, one generation ago we expected children to know the 52 letters and their numbers by the end of their kindergarten experience. All children do not develop at the same rate and each child has areas which develop faster than others. It is not in a child’s best interest to assume that this can be ignored without consequences.
Development has not changed. It starts in utero. We learn to control large muscles and joints first and use feedback (hits and misses) from these movements to refine them and make them automatic. We make gross movements before we make fine movements. Smooth movements can only be made when we are relaxed. Movements are visually planned and guided until they become automatic which may take thousands of repetitions. Most children do not require guidance for this to happen. They just require opportunity.
Writing needs to be developed at a mastery level before it doesn’t interfere with performance. Even then, we can think faster than we can write. The longer that it takes to write, the longer we have to hold what we want to write in working memory. Inefficient writing interferes with the expression of ideas. Working with children on the autism spectrum has increased our sensitivity to the importance of low-level skills such as eye movements and handwriting.
Starting with fluent movements and gradually making them more accurate and consistent is more effective than starting with intentional, stressful movements and trying to make them fluent and automatic. Throwing and hitting balls are good examples. We have to feel the movement and see the result for it to be refined. It is important for children to scribble freely before they attempt to refine their writing movements and what their movements produce. Unfortunately, many classrooms no longer have chalkboards which enable large movements with the drag of the chalk on the board providing important feedback to the large muscles and joints of the arm. White boards and markers are too slippery to provide that feedback. Movements refined by the large muscles and joints can then be transferred, with appropriate rehearsal, to the small muscles and joints of the hand and wrist. Another advantage of a chalkboard is that you can erase whatever you made and do it again. This is an integral part of learning, not mistakes to be avoided. Additionally, if your hand hurts from gripping the pencil to keep it from sliding out of your hand, that pain drowns out all other feedback and repetition will not make it better.
For young children, making symbols and basic shapes is like copying complex forms for us. The shape has to be broken into components, the relationships between the components has to be assessed, the sequence of replication needs to be decided, and what is being placed on the paper and where needs to be monitored. Skill at copying forms correlates with performance in both reading and math due to this dependence on organization and attention to detail.
Some movements are easier than others. Manuscript writing is much more demanding than cursive for many children due to the precision required and the disjunctive movements involved. A capital “E” for example, requires 4 individual, precise lines in manuscript with the pencil placed accurately 4 times. It is one continuous line in cursive. Consequently, children often do better when they write with “modified italic” in which the letters are like those in cursive but they don’t have to be connected (and b and d are not mirror images).
Poor visual motor skills make writing more challenging and struggling with writing, in turn, produces eyestrain. When children struggle, they often hold their pencil so close to the point that they have to bend over to see the pencil point since their fingers are in the way. In that position, they often only see the point of their pencil with one eye and they are tense. To improve their posture, their grip on the pencil must change. It is natural to lean our head forward so it is parallel to the plane of our writing or reading. If the material is on a flat surface, leaning that far forward brings us too close to the material and in a stressful position. A slanted surface is more comfortable for both reading and writing because we tend to lean forward less. Everyone recognizes that we feel tense when we are anxious but we don’t always realize that we also feel anxious when we are tense.
Because some children need to stare intently when they are writing, they experience more eyestrain from writing than they do from reading. This surprises adults because we don’t experience this unless we are doing something like lettering a sign. When we stare to concentrate, we see a smaller visual field. This makes it more difficult to write in straight lines, to keep our letters the same size, to put spaces between words, and to write numerals in columns.
Writing should reinforce our thinking, not interfere with it. What children write and what their writing looks like is part of their self-image. This important part of school – and life – deserves more understanding, patience, and informed guidance.