Automaticity in Handwriting. WHAT to write not HOW to write.

Automaticity in handwriting is the ability to automatically recall letter formation patterns so your child can think about WHAT to write, not HOW to write.  Handwriting automaticity is not something we hear about as often as pencil grip or fine motor skills; but it is a critical aspect of handwriting acquisition which cannot, and must not, be ignored.  Wikipedia defines automaticity as “the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit.  It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.”  So how does that relate to handwriting?  Letter writing automaticity is defined as "the rate at which children can access, retrieve from memory, and write alphabet letters accurately.“  The implications of automaticity in handwriting are seen in our children's ability to achieve handwriting that is fluent, legible, and of an appropriate speed.  When children have not achieved skilled automatic handwriting, their scholastic progress is hampered.

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The importance of letter formation – let's see how it works in practise.

I'm going to ask you to grab a pencil, give this calculation a go, and WRITE down the answer: (go on, I dare you to have a go!)

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The truth is, that I can say with almost 100% certainty, that not one of you thought about how to form the numbers – you were thinking (or panicking!) about how to multiply the numbers.  You automatically wrote down the number.  And that is exactly what automaticity in handwriting is all about.  The motor patterns or “motor maps” of the letter formation patterns are hardwired in your brain, so you never have to think about how to write them.  You can give your full attention to the calculation.

Automatic handwriting is a little like automatic spelling.  When our children come to write their news; a piece about the frog life cycle they have just learned about; or a visit to the aquarium; they have to be able to spell the words.  In the early grades they have a dictionary so they can go and ask the teacher to write the unfamiliar words they need into their dictionary.  Then, they can carry on and write them in their story.  In addition to this magical dictionary, they have weekly spelling lists.  And every week there are 10 or so words they need to learn to spell.  And the number of words increases as they move up through the foundation phase.

As a parent supervising spelling homework, all those spelling words bored me!  It wasn’t that I didn’t see their importance – let’s just say they weren’t my favourite, and they weren’t my children’s favourite either!

But they served a critical function.  They provided my children with the foundations they needed to be able to write their stories, projects and, later through high school, history essays, or describe the complexities of photosynthesis.

Once your children have learned to spell, for the most part, they don’t need to be constantly referring to their dictionary or Google to find out how to spell something.  With this, their ability to express themselves on paper begins to flow.  Their flow of thoughts isn't constantly hindered by having to find out how to spell a word.  They have them in their backpack.

And it is just the same with handwriting.  Our children cannot be constantly worried about the mechanics or the “how to” of handwriting.  They can’t be wondering how to form a "g" or which way the letter "d" faces.  But more than that, they also can’t be “making up” the formations as they go.  It is not enough that they know what the letters and numbers look like – they have to know how to form them without even thinking about it.

“Being able to write effortlessly enables the mind to focus more fully on the topic.  Struggling with handwriting takes valuable brain energy away from any writing task, but when that skill is mastered it makes all the difference.  Skilled fluid script is an asset to learning.”

Joyce Rankin, Colorado State Board of Education

Steve Graham, one of my handwriting heroes, said:

“The basic goal of handwriting instruction is to help students develop legible handwriting that can be produced quickly with little conscious attention."  He goes on to say: "As handwriting skills become more automatic and less cognitively demanding, attention and resources for carrying out other writing processes, including those involving more reflection and careful composing, become available."

And that is what we want.  We want our children to be thinking about WHAT to write, not HOW to write.

Teaching automatic handwriting in the foundation phase is the foundation for composition and story writing.

Automatic handwriting enables a child to write legibly, and at an appropriate speed.  While there are norms of handwriting speed – that is the number of letters a child should write per minute in the different grades – the best handwriting speed test is the functional one.  Is the child able to get their thoughts down on paper in a timeous fashion so they don’t forget what they were trying to say?  If their hand can’t keep up with their brain when it comes to their ability to put their thoughts on paper, the quality of their written composition and story writing is going to be compromised.

For other children who cannot maintain the necessary handwriting speed to keep up with their ideas, they just dumb down what they wanted to say.  They write down the least possible amount to meet the teachers requirements, and don’t stretch themselves to express on paper what they would be well able to do verbally.

So many times I have had parents say to me that their child can tell the most amazing stories or explain complex concepts, until they have to write them down.  When committing it to paper, the same story becomes weak and flimsy and the complex concept is poorly and incompletely explained. This is because the mechanism by which they have to record it – their handwriting – is failing them. The handwriting foundation is simply not there.

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How do we establish handwriting automaticity?  Strategies to improve handwriting.

  1. Handwriting needs time, and it needs it regularly.  Motor patterns are developed through practice and repetition.
  2. Handwriting needs repetition in the correct formation patterns. It is not useful to practise forming, for example a “b” by making a stick and a circle.  That is not going to provide the speed and fluency of handwriting our children need as they progress through school.
  3. Handwriting is more efficiently established through the use of a multisensory approach which gives the brain more information about how the letters are formed.
  4. Handwriting has to be given equal standing as reading and maths.  As it so happens, early graphomotor (pre-handwriting) skills in preschool are a predictor for maths and reading abilities in Grade 2!  Enough said.

Handwriting automaticity is the very foundation that our children need for story writing and composition. We need to take note of, and act on the research that has shown us that simply by working on handwriting skills, children’s story writing and composition improved.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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