Handwriting: A Foundational Skill

Handwriting is one of the main activities in which a child engages during his or her learning years. Studies support the supposition that adequate handwriting is a necessary skill for a child to succeed in elementary school and beyond (Feder & Majnemer, 2003), as it is estimated that 30% to 60% of a child’s school day is spent completing written work (Marr, Windsor, & Cermak, 2001; McHale & Cermak, 1992); this written work is the primary means by which a teacher evaluates the child’s learning. Studies have also shown that legibility and handwriting speed influence a child’s success in school (Graham, 2011).

More on the Acquisition of Handwriting Skills

The foundation skills required for adequate graphomotor skills include visual motor integration skills, visual perception, in-hand manipulation skills, and kinesthetic awareness (Case-Smith & Pehoski, 1992; Laszlo & Bairstow, 1984; Maeland, 1992; Tseng & Murray, 1994; Weil & Amundson, 1994). Developmental theory suggests that first, learning is facilitated when these foundation skills are presented to a developmentally ready child (Benbow, 1995), and second, that an optimal time for the learning of pre-writing foundation skills is during the pre-school years (Gerde, 1., Bingham, G., & Wasik, B., 2012). There is a tacit expectation that the majority of children entering kindergarten should be able to identify most letters and, after some formal instruction, form these letters graphically. To become a proficient writer, children must integrate two critical aspects of writing: the lower-level motoric skills and the higher-level process-oriented skills. (Medwell, J., & Wray, D, 2007; Hoy, M. 2011; Volman, J., Van Schendel, B., & Jongmans, M., 2006). The motoric aspect can be defined as graphomotor skills, including the ability to manipulate a writing utensil to form letters and words. Developmental theory states that children are ready to learn these skills in pre-school. With consistent exposure and practice, graphomotor skills should progress from a novel motor act to an automatic skill (Tucha, O., Tucha, L., & Lange, K. 2008).  The process-oriented aspect, conversely, represents the stage at which the writer is no longer focusing on the physical act of writing, but is using words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Acquisition of these two different types of skills, the motoric and the process-oriented, generally occurs in a chronological sequence in which motoric skills are learned first and followed, given time and consistent practice, by higher-level process oriented skill (Exner, C., & Henderson, A., 1995). At the point at which writing becomes automatic, the writer’s attention can be devoted more fully to tasks such as vocabulary selection and written expression of ideas. Typically, these higher-level cognitive skills are in place by the third grade (Feder & Majnemer, 2007).

Unfortunately, in 10-30% of children, this automaticity does not occur (Karlsdottir, R., Stefansson, T., 2002) . They are forced to allocate a portion of their attentional resources to the motor aspect of learning, such that the act of writing is laborious. Because children are required to submit written assignments in nearly every class, they may fall behind academically when completion of these assignments becomes burdensome and time-consuming (Graham, S. 1992; Hammerschmidt & Sudsawad, 2004). As a result, these children’s learning is impaired, their grades suffer, and they may experience poor self-esteem (Engel-Yeger, Nagauker-Yanuv, & Rosenblum, 2009; Feder & Majnemer, 2007).

It is Dr. Julie’s position that it is imperative to identify these difficulties with developing motor handwriting skills before formal education begins, when the focus of handwriting is still on motor output rather than as a method of communication or an indicator of learning. Furthermore, it is the author’s position that the pre-kindergarten pre-school year is the optimal time to intervene because children are not yet required to use handwriting as a functional form of communication or to demonstrate knowledge of what is being learned in the classroom (Tucha, Tucha,  & Lange, 2008). Since in pre-school the handwriting demand required of a child is typically isolated to only the motor skills needed to form letters, all of the child’s attentional capacity can be used to work on motor handwriting tasks.

The purpose of the Letter Leaders handwriting program is to ensure that children enter elementary school equipped with the motor skills necessary for the acquisition of automatic handwriting so that the child can focus his or her attention on learning how to use writing as an effective form of communication.

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