OT Corner: Handwriting Mastery Begins Before the Introduction of a Pencil

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by Katherine Collmer

Article reprinted with permission of the author and the Mama OT blog as it originally appeared on April 1, 2013

Hello, everyone! I am thrilled to be a guest blogger on Christie’s awesome site, Mama OT! It is an honor to have been included among the impressive authors and offerings you can find here.

Let me start by asking the question, “Why do we care about handwriting?”

katherinecollmerPhoto credit: D Sharon Pruitt

The teaching of handwriting has been the topic of many blogs, conversations, educational debates and professional forums. Why bother? Aren’t the “hard” subjects like math and the sciences, as well as the foundational ones like reading and spelling, more worthy of a teacher’s time? Yes, these subjects certainly do warrant a place of priority in our children’s education. And, as we all know, reading is the basic skill upon which all others are built. It is at the heart of education.

However, it is important to note that handwriting and reading utilize the same skills for mastery, one of which is letter recognition. Visual memory and perception are the underlying skills required for letter recognition. The ability to automatically recall the formation of letters from memory without conscious thought allows the writer to copy and create content. But comprehension — of what we both read and write — cannot occur without an efficient working memory. Working memory is what we use to store information while we transfer it to paper or speech, or as we read a story. Working memory has limitations, however, that can get in the way when it comes to handwriting. Since it can only hold about 7 pieces of information (letters or words) for about 10 seconds or so at a time, a child can lose what he’s stored if he needs to spend extra time sounding out letters or digging deep to remember what they look like.

In that light, you might be interested to hear that studies have shown that children who are doing well with handwriting skills and letter recognition in pre-kindergarten achieve B averages in 2nd grade math and reading – while those children who did not perform well, attained C averages in 2nd grade. I will leave you with that food for thought as we journey through the developmental steps that lead to the mastery of handwriting.

From infancy forward, as children progress through the developmental stages, they are learning about parts and how they can manipulate them to make a whole. The letters of the alphabet are simply parts that make a whole. They are not learned as a single entity but as pieces that connect together to make them a letter. Babies and toddlers use their vision to guide their hands in the manipulation of shapes and forms, mentally sorting and labeling them. Letters are simply shapes and forms. As a child perceives the concepts of “separate” and “whole,” and as she experiments with shapes and sizes, she is developing her working memory skills. She collects information, stores it in her brain, and brings it back into her working memory once again as she repeatedly tries her hand at pulling things in and out, apart and together. As a child discovers the capabilities of her arms, hands and fingers, as well as the larger muscles of her body, she is getting ready for handwriting. And she does this all through PLAY!

PLAY PROVIDES THE FOUR BASIC COMPONENTS FOR THE MASTERY OF HANDWRITING:  Movement, Sensory, Vision, and Cognition. Although vision is actually one of our senses, I set it apart because it is the piece that works to make sense of the information that is gathered by all of our other senses. With that said, it is difficult to separate these four elements from each other since they are so intertwined. So, we will discuss them as pieces that fit together to make a “whole!”

baby girl in crib with hand to face1. Movement is a key component of a child’s learning. From the moment of birth, movement begins the child’s journey through her developmental stages. It connects the baby to the world around her. Playing with her arms and legs introduces her to bilateral integration, helping her to discover that she has two sides and that they can work alone or together. Babies are stimulated by light and sound, turning their heads toward you when you talk or at a mobile as it plays music. Tummy time offers opportunities to work on their visual skills as they push up and look out and around the room. Rolling over and crawling help them to experiment with their bodies and bilateral coordination.

Movement challenges children to “know where their body is”. Body awareness is simply our body map. It tells us where our head is, our arms are, and if we are vertical or horizontal. We can identify our position in space even if our eyes are closed. At the very epicenter of movement is the brain, activating neurons that link itself to the body parts that we want to move. As we move, the brain is gathering, analyzing, adapting and storing information. And all of this information is what we use to develop an accurate body map. And body awareness is one of the key facets in efficient handwriting skills!

Infant Playing2. Sensory processing that is accurate is also developed through movement activities. As I continue to emphasize the vital role that body awareness plays in a child’s success with handwriting (and just about every other educational endeavor), it is important to recognize the importance of accurate sensory processing. The information we receive through our ears, eyes, skin, joints, and muscles provides us with the ability to regulate our movements, recognize pressure and position our bodies.

Babies and toddlers most often seek out movement. As they turn their heads, roll over, push up and eventually pull themselves onto their feet, they are collecting information from all of their senses. They organize it and analyze it in order to use it again to produce and modify their movement strategies. The simple act of feeding – moving the mouth, tongue, and lips – facilitates the essential skill of feeding by offering opportunities to manipulate and experiment with their mouths. Lots of movement provides lots of opportunities to experience sensory input!

Girl Playing With Building Blocks3. Vision has been described as our most far-reaching sense. All of the collecting, organizing, analyzing, and storing a child performs during her movement adventures are done via her visual system. Although we think of our vision as simply being our eyesight, it is actually a much more complex system. 

Vision is a movement pattern (there’s that word again!). It is learned, the same as walking is learned, while we develop our motor skills. It helps us to make sense of those things that we cannot understand with our other senses (such as depth, distance, some of the balance piece and perceptions). It provides the foundation of information from which we can see the world as a whole, allowing us to organize and manipulate space.

As a child develops her motor skills, she begins to understand concepts such as up, down, behind, over and under. She figures out how things connect and go together. Visual processing skills provide insight into perspective, likenesses and differences, spatial relationships and how to use the both sides of our body – alone or together – as we develop our fine and gross motor coordination.

Healthy Snack4. Cognition by definition is the “mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses”. Cognition is the culmination of putting movement, the senses, and vision to work. It is the process by which we initiate, produce, modify and reproduce our movements. Once again, an accurate body map plays a key role in the development of accurate movement patterns. From sucking on a bottle to shaking a rattle to scribbling with a crayon, the ability to know where our body parts are and how they work give the brain accurate information from which to make decisions. It can determine the amount of pressure to put on a pencil, the direction in which to draw a letter and the space that is needed between words. Movement makes it happen.

A child’s journey through the stages that develop movement patterns, sensory processing skills, vision skills, and cognitive skills introduces her to opportunities to develop fine motor grasping patterns, trunk control, balance skills, and visual-motor proficiency. As she plays — from infancy through kindergarten — she is experimenting with holding a rattle, a cube, a ball, a crayon, and a pencil. She is making her mark on chalkboards, papers, in shaving cream and, most likely, on the walls! She is finding ways to communicate with us through handwriting…and in the process she is developing the cognitive skills she will need to learn her letters and read and write.

I hope that I have piqued your interest in handwriting mastery and the thrill of learning it through play! Thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and feedback!

About the Author and Contributing Blog

Katherine Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who is hopelessly in love with handwriting! She owns and operates a small clinic that specializes in just that, where she brings fun, movement, and play into the mix. She currently lives on Cape Cod, in Sandwich, MA, USA, and is kooky when it comes to walking her Welsh Pembroke Corgi, Ron, along the beach. Of course, she is even kookier when it comes to her husband, John, as they travel across the US looking for adventure! She enjoys reading mystery novels (especially the British ones) and writing her long-winded blogs. Cross-stitch is high on her list of relaxing activities, right before playing games on her iPad!

Find out more about Katherine and her passion for handwriting at www.handwritingwithkatherine.com.

Featured Blog:  MamaOT.com

Christie Kiley is the owner/operator of the MamaOT.com blog.  Christie is a pediatric occupational therapist who is committed to helping children succeed. In addition to being an OT, she has a background in gymnastics, psychology, and education, and she is passionate about using gymnastics as a tool for pediatric therapy. Christie is a proud mom and enthusiastic advocate for the OT profession. She is the author of the blog Mama OT: Tips and tricks for those who care for children, and can be followed at MamaOT.com.


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One Response to OT Corner: Handwriting Mastery Begins Before the Introduction of a Pencil

  1. Thank you for this blog. I love reading things written by passionate people, and your passion clearly comes across. I agree completely! Check out our website and FB page. I believe we are speaking the same language! Let’s grow this community!