Summer Blog Series Post #7: The Role of Graphomotor Function in Handwriting

In last week’s post, we discussed the demands of revising written work.  Today, we’re going to focus on a different aspect of writing: handwriting.

Many people, adults and children alike, struggle with penmanship.  The ability to use computers to convey ideas can help minimize the need for handwriting and relieve handwriting-challenged individuals from the frustration of writing in some cases.  But even with the Digital Age in full swing, students – especially those in elementary and middle school – use this skill all day, every day, in their classrooms. 

Writing ideas or taking notes on paper requires us to form letters quickly and easily.  And in order to share their written material with others, students must also write legibly.  Some students find it easier to print than to use cursive writing. Printing requires that only 26 letter formations be remembered, while in cursive writing, every word is different. For other students, cursive is preferable because of the flow of movement when forming cursive letters.

As students progress through school, the demands increase – more details to track, greater language complexity, and growing vocabulary requirements. If students don’t learn to form letters with ease, they may need to focus so intently on their handwriting that they may find it difficult to produce the written work required.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

The process of writing places demands on a student’s memory (e.g., recalling the desired letters), spatial ordering (e.g., making a mental picture of each letter), and graphomotor function (e.g., having a comfortable grip and sending signals to the proper finger muscles to form letters).  In this post, we’ll focus on graphomotor function

Graphomotor function involves the coordination and control of the muscles at the end of our fingers. Some muscles are used to make a pencil move up and down, others to make the pencil move left and right, others to move it in a circular motion, etc. Since writing letters requires a combination of these movements, different muscles are used to form different letters. Some students have trouble getting their muscles to move in the correct way.  If one or more of these aspects are not functioning well for a student, he or she may write slowly and/or form letters and/or numbers that are difficult to read. 

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • writes letters smoothly, at an appropriate pace, and with consistent formation using a normal tripod grasp 
  • uses appropriate spacing between letters and words
  • forms letters without noticeable difficulty
  • writes without close visual monitoring
  • maintains appropriate posture when writing
  • applies adequate pressure to the pencil during letter formation

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • hesitates while writing or labors over individual letters, making writing a slow, laborious process
  • leaves as much space between letters as between words
  • makes frequent cross outs or erasures
  • shows a strong preference for printing over cursive writing
  • uses an alternative (e.g., fist-like) grip or uses wrists and elbows rather than small muscles and joints
  • keeps eyes close to the page while writing
  • is reluctant to write despite having good language skills
  • uses excessive pressure on the pencil, causing the hand to become tired or cramped

Strategies to help students struggling with graphomotor function:

  • Have students practice tracing shapes and letters. Gradually reduce the complete shape or letter to dots, so that the student can practice making the shapes or letters by connecting the dots. 
  • Encourage students who have difficulty simultaneously recalling letter formation, spelling, and their ideas to do writing in stages (rather than try to do these all at once). Graphic organizers are a great tool for this.
  • Introduce fun creative writing activities in which students can practice correct letter formation, for example: writing to a pen pal, creating an advertisement for a new toy or other product, designing a contest entry form, writing to request a famous athlete’s autograph, etc. 
  • When assigning a handwritten project, give students a choice of printing or using cursive writing. Many adults naturally use a combination of manuscript and cursive writing. 
  • Be aware that some students with graphomotor difficulties may also have difficulty learning to type on a keyboard. Guide these students through computer mastery gradually and without undue pressure. As a student is acquiring keyboarding skills, have him/her continue to practice handwriting. 

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about handwriting
  2. Related research on graphomotor function
  3. Writing section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  4. Newsweek article: Good penmanship is more than just a quaint skill. A new study shows that it’s a key part of learning.
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One thought on “Summer Blog Series Post #7: The Role of Graphomotor Function in Handwriting

  1. My son Ross was diagnosed with graphomotor at age 9 at the Student Success Center in New York. We put him in schools that were accommodating to his challenge,advocated for him with the teachers, and took the recommendation to have him learn to keyboard to heart. We had previously been told he would outgrow this challenge but even with doing everything suggested that we do, i.e. tutors, practice, extra time, it was apparent to us that it would not change enough to help him in school. Using a keyboard was the key to successful writing for our son.
    Ross has been a highly successful student ever since that visit, (National Honor Society), and I am happy to report that he just received the highest score possible, (6 out of 6) on his statewide FCAT scores for writing. It takes a lot of effort to help kids with this and fight a system built on doing things “one right way” but it is worth it when you see the results.

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