Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lighten the Load of Poor Handwriting

Are teachers racing out of their doorways to beg you for help as you walk down the hall? I bet you're getting lots of questions about pencil grasp and handwriting by now. Feel free to share the following information with your teachers if it jives with your philosophy of improving handwriting:

CLASSROOM QUANDRIES: So what do I do about…
A poor grasp of the pencil

The first few weeks of the school year are truly a new beginning for all of us. We return to school with fresh ideas and renewed enthusiasm. It's a time of new beginnings for our students, too.

Most of our students have taken a long break from the typical school activities they now use each day--writing, cutting with scissors, organizing their notebooks and desks.. This is a great time for us to help them start off the year with good habits for these frequently-used skills. For kindergarten students just beginning their school career it's a golden opportunity for them to learn great skills from the very start.

Let's think about how to promote a good grasp of the pencil, crayon or marker. You probably remember from watching your own child develop that hand skills progress in a very orderly fashion, just like all other areas of child development. Babies use their entire hand to pick up a leftover Cheerio. When they get older and toddle around they start to use their thumb and fingers to pick up blocks and small toys.

Using a writing instrument is a skill that also follows an orderly progression. Two-year-olds grab a crayon with their whole hand and scribble everywhere. A four-year-old child may use his thumb to squeeze the crayon tightly against his curled fingers.

Children use different ways of grasping things according to the way the writing surface is placed. If they draw or paint on an easel they tend to use their thumbs and first two fingers to hold the pencil or brush. The same is true if they lie down on their tummies and color while lying on the floor. Having the writing surface on a flat table requires lots of active work from the wrist and this is where you will often see an immature or inefficient grasp.

Keep in mind that in order to have a good grasp a child must have normal strength in his arms and hands. It has been my experience that many typical children and teens do not have even average strength, and this can lead to fatigue when writing. When I question these students about their leisure activities and home chores, I usually learn that they lead sedentary lifestyles and do not have home responsibilities that involve physical work.

But here we are in school and we have some students who demonstrate very unusual grasps. A few of these students complain of pain in their hands after just a little bit of writing. What are we to do? Let's try a few things.

1. Model an efficient grasp. Training good habits takes months of repetition. Take ten seconds each time you present a new alphabet letter or begin a writing assignment to point out the correct grasp of the pencil. If you use some type of reward system in your classroom include correct grasp as a behavior to reward.

2. Use pencil grippers sparingly. Very few students truly require any adaptive equipment. If you do supply these grippers to your students make sure you point out how to place them on the pencil for the right or left hand, and the correct placement of the fingers according to the marked area(s) on the grippers. When you see that a student does not really use the gripper then save it for another student.

3. Go back to penmanship basics. Remember to train the students to tilt their writing paper to the right or left, according to their hand dominance. Make sure they reposition the paper as they write farther and farther down the page. Otherwise, they will bend their wrists to be able to write on the lower lines.

4. Take a tip from professionals. When you think of a draftsman's or architect's table, what picture comes to your mind? I hope your strongest image is that of the tilt to the table. What about an artist's easel--very angled. These professionals use angled work surfaces to improve their reach and visual monitoring of their work. In schools this can be copied in inexpensive ways.

--First, use the easels, chalkboards and windows in your classrooms as angled work surfaces for your students. A portion of writing or drawing time can be spent at an angled surface to reinforce using an efficient grasp.

--Another way to design a more angled surface in the classroom is to use empty 2" or 3" ring binders, positioned sideways, as inexpensive easels. As long as the student remembers to push the writing paper upward as he writes lower on the page these binders make suitable easels.

5. Permit students to write while lying down on the floor. The hand will essentially be in the same position as when writing on an easel. Keep in mind that this position is fatiguing so don't expect most students to maintain the position for more than a few minutes at first.

One note about fatigue and discomfort reported by students. A small number of students are accustomed to equating everyday exertion with discomfort and even pain. None of us would ever consciously push a student to the point where the amount of writing or other work was so extreme that it would invoke a pain response. Some students need an initial period of "hardening" so that they will maintain a constant level of schoolwork.

6. You'll love this one. Help your students develop strength in their hands by having them work at school. Passing out stacks of books to classmates and alphabetizing the classroom library books are examples of suitable jobs that incorporate some hand exercise.

Now that you've read all of this information I will share just a little bit more with you. In a perfect world and in a perfect classroom, every student and adult would have textbook perfect grasp and handwriting. No hands would ever fatigue or develop calluses and everyone's handwriting would be legible.

However...just walk into any classroom for gifted students, your surgeon's office or even the check-writing ledge at the grocery store and observe how people hold a pen and write. You will find that there are very few students and adults who have a perfect grasp. For a typical student, having a inefficient grasp is a non-issue and does not impact their academic success at all. But for students who are easily discouraged,
process information at a slower rate than others, have less than average strength or are sensitive to how they compare to their friends then an inefficient grasp is just one more rock to add to their heavy packs.

Let's lighten the journey by helping our students develop efficient work habits this year. With a strong foundation of good habits we can go forward with another year of solid growth in our students.

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