Handwriting is a complex skill. Handwriting involves the ability to form letters with consistent letter size, proportions and spacing, so that others can read words and sentences. Producing legible handwriting requires complex visual perceptual skills as well as an integration of motor skills with these visual perceptual skills.
Visual perception is the process where the brain extracts and organises information, giving meaning to what we see. Visual-motor integration is the degree to which visual perception and finger-hand movements are well coordinated. There are many components of visual processing which work together to assign meaning to what we see and include eye-hand coordination, figure ground, visual discrimination, form constancy, visual memory and visual-sequential memory.
Eye –hand coordination is the ability to coordinate eye movement with hand movements and includes the ability to process visual information to guide hand function. When children are learning to control a pencil for handwriting, they will rely on visual information as they look at their hand and what the pencil is producing as they write.
The ability to copy a vertical line, circle, horizontal line, right oblique line, square, left oblique line and an oblique cross have been recognised by therapists as an indication of a child’s readiness to integrate visual-motor skills to begin handwriting instructions.
Typically children are encouraged to control their pencils and practise eye-hand coordination with tracing various lines, then shapes and then letters. These lines may include bold dotted lines, faded dotted lines, bold unbroken lines, faded unbroken lines to trace on. Children may also be provided with paths, roads or outlines to draw between to produce lines, shapes or letters. Therapist may support children with eye-hand difficulties by contrasting the path to be drawn or by emphasizing the boundary line (eg. with a raised surface). Eye-hand coordination of fine and gross motor tasks may also be encouraged prior to handwriting instruction. This may emphasize large movements before moving to small movements. Children may be encouraged to develop eye-hand coordination of larger tools before using small tools for more accurate control (eg. crayon rock before ordinary crayon).
Extra cues may be needed for children with figure-ground difficulties such as providing information on a piece of paper rather than a board, a square drawn around a word or phrase to be copied or a ruler to highlight the writing line. They may also benefit from scanning exercises. Visual Closure is the ability to process visual information when the object or word is partially hidden. In handwriting, this may affect letter formation and spelling words. Visual closure in letter formation is closely related to visual discrimination described earlier. Children may also demonstrate incomplete letter formation which affects handwriting legibility and neatness. Activities recommended in the visual discrimination section are relevant for those with visual closure difficulties. Form Constancy is the ability to identify an object, shape, letter, number, symbol when it is presented in a different way (eg. larger, smaller, rotated, italics, bold, different font, sideways, upside down, different colour). In handwriting this may result in not realising when they are having difficulty with letter formation as they may interpret their formation as accurate. For example they may see the visual closure examples above and may consider the forms to be constant (form constancy) and are unable to identify the discriminating features (visual discrimination). Children who have difficulty with form constancy may also have difficulty transitioning from printing to cursive writing. Children who experience with difficulty with form constancy may benefit from consistent use of the same writing font in the classroom, presentation of information at the same orientation that it is expected to be reproduced (eg. flat on the table when writing at the table or vertical when writing on a whiteboard). Teaching letters and words using a multi-sensory approach can help children to become more aware of the properties of shapes and letters needed for handwriting. Visual memory is the ability to remember and recall objects, shapes, symbols or movements in short term memory. Visual memory requires visualization of what to remember. This may affect a child’s ability to recognize and name shapes, letters and words. They may have difficulty remember what these “look like” without a visual prompt. For example, children may be able to copy the letters of the alphabet when it is on a desk strip, however if you randomly ask them to write various letters of the alphabet they may not recall what it looks like. They may also have difficulty remembering all the letters of a word to copy and need to “look up” to copy each letter even with familiar words. Children with visual memory difficulties benefit from playing memory card games and chunking small amounts of information at a time for writing (eg. word on a flash cards rather than a whole sheet). They may require visual aids for longer than other students (eg. use of desk strips of the alphabet). These children also benefit from multi-sensory learning especially incorporating the use of verbal cues associated with motor movements (eg. tall straight line down, up and over to draw an “h” can be creating walking on a chalk line, creating this with a skipping rope, tracing in shaving cream, writing on a whiteboard, using a ribbon to draw in the sky and using finger to write on someone’s back). Visual sequential memory is the ability to remember and recall a sequence of objects, shapes, symbols or movements in a particular order. In handwriting, this may affect letter formation with more frequent letter reversals as children have difficulty remembering the order for letter formation as well as the spatial position of the next line. This may also affect a child’s ability to write words which may have similar letters (eg. on, no, one) or a sequence of words to make a sentence. Children with visual sequential memory difficulties benefit from pairing verbal cues with motor skills as described in visual memory. Children may read and repeat letters for writing words, or read and repeat phrases and sentences for extended writing. These verbal cues may need to be said “aloud” before the child learns to internalise this and “says it in their heads”. Simple sequential memory games using physical props such as beads, blocks, pom poms may precede games using letters, numbers, shapes and words. These may be presented in increasingly large numbers and covered to be reproduced with shorter time frames over time as skills develop.