Motor Skills Development and the ABC of Handwriting

For those who are new to the field of handwriting, this can serve as a checklist for the areas that must be considered when preparing our children for this life skill.  While not exhaustive, many of the critical areas are covered here.  What follows is a summary of handwriting and motor skills development that you can read about in so many of the posts on this Blog.  There is little taste of each, along with a link to enable you to find out more if you want to.

Motor skills development is critical for handwriting acquisition.


WHAT to write, not HOW to write.  This is so important for our children.  We really don’t want them to spend their story writing lesson continually thinking about which way a "b" faces, or how for form a "k."  We need our children to be in a place where they are well on the road to establishing automaticity in handwriting.
Motor skills development is critical for the development of automaticity in handwriting. Child need to think about WHAT to write, not HOW to write.Bilateral integration promotes page stabilisation

With so many of our children holding their heads up with their helping hands, many are not stabilising their pages when writing.  This really is a problem and can cause and exacerbate so many handwriting difficulties.  Where the helping hand is not doing its job, the writing hand is going to have to hold the page still.  And you really can’t be a mover and a stabiliser!  Either the hand moves, or it sits still and holds the page in place.  I’m sure we have all at some time had to hold a package while signing for it only to have our signature look like nothing like it should, simply because the paper was moving around while we were signing.  Page stabilisation is one of those fundamental things that can make such a difference to handwriting. And it stems from the motor skills development that takes place with bilateral integration, or the child’s ability to use the two hands together in a co-ordinated manner.

Cursive can save the day

It truly can!  I am so aware there is a growing movement which believes cursive is dead.  That it is time to leave behind what belongs in the Dark Ages and look towards the exciting advances offered by tech.  But as great as the techno world may be, and as much as it has to offer, handwriting is critical for our children.  Where handwriting has gone so very wrong, it can be very difficult to remediate because it has become hardwired in that messy script.  Motor patterns are hard to change when they are habitual.  Hello cursive handwriting!  The new handwriting style commands a whole new set of motor maps for letter formation.  You are not trying to overcome and change old established patterns, your child can start over and do it the right way the first time!  This is a one of my secret weapons in the teaching of handwriting.

Cursive handwriting can save the day when motor skills development and handwriting have gone wrong. A new handwriting style gives the chance to start over.Daily handwriting practise in Grade 1

In the words of Dr Steve Graham: “There is considerable scientific evidence, collected over a span of almost 100 years demonstrating that directly teaching handwriting enhances legibility and fluency.”  You don’t need me to tell you how jam-packed the school day is.  There are so many things shouting louder than handwriting.  We know how important it is and what a difference practise makes.  There certainly are a body of children who end up needing handwriting support simply because they did not have sufficient practise before they were required to use it functionally for story writing and other classroom tasks.  If our children have to write before they have the foundations of letter formation, it often leads to handwriting going really wrong.  It is worth the time investment in handwriting in Grade 1 to have our children able to have the motor skills development exposure for fluid handwriting to support them as they begin with story writing and composition.

Establish “motor maps” for letter formation

Like all motor tasks, letter formation progresses from being conscious to automatic. As our children practice their letter formations, they lay down what is known as a motor engram or a “motor map” in the brain. The most important thing about this is that we want to lay them down in the correct formation patterns. If they practise them over and over in the wrong pattern – this could be an incorrect orientation or a wobbly one that looks nothing like what it should – the motor map is going to be laid down in this incorrect pattern. As your child practises more and more, eventually the pattern becomes hard wired. We really don’t want to have handwriting hardwired in an illegible form that is not going to support your child through their school journey.

Fine motor development

Fine motor skills are only one aspect of motor skills development that are needed for handwriting acquisition.We know about fine motor skills development!  This is the techno age where kids haven’t had the fine motor development exposure that previous generations did.  We have also just come out of a pandemic where it was near impossible for parents to limit screen time.  Fine motor development is the critical foundation underpinning your child’s ability to manipulate the pencil.  And we need to give it intentional time to make sure our children’s development in this critical area isn’t falling through the cracks.

Grip and grasp of scissors and pencils

I’ll start this one speaking abut scissor grasp since it is way less emotive and contentious!  Scissor grasp is important because cutting develops the muscles for pencil grip and pencil control in a very special way.  We need the 4th and 5th fingers to be tucked loosely into the palm to provide a point of stability for the thumb, index and middle fingers which move the pencil.  This is exactly what cutting will develop if our children use the correct scissor grasp.  It’s a way we can develop the muscles, movement and stability we need while our children are focusing on what they are cutting out.  It’s a little like a workout for the fingers, only they don’t know they are going to gym!

And now pencil grasp!  While the dynamic tripod pencil grip is the gold standard in grips, it is not the only acceptable grip.  When it comes to pencil grip, we are looking for efficiency.  Efficient with grips is easily defined.  A grip that allows the fingers to bend and stretch freely is efficient.  A grip that blocks the finger movements is not described as efficient.  Simple as that.  If your child is getting the required finger movements then we really don’t want to be interfering with their pencil grasp.  This is the motor skills development we are looking for in pencil grasp.

Hand preference is critical

Where children are yet to establish a preferred or dominant hand, they are not going to be able to progress to being expert handwriters.  We need one really specialised hand to do the writing and one helping hand to hold the page still as we go.  I have seen children in the Grade 1 classroom who have yet to choose a hand preference.  This really starts them off on the back foot.  They are not going to be able to go on to develop the specialisation required from their writing hand if they are consistently switching between the two.  This is most certainly a time to consider consulting an occupational therapist.

Handwriting foundations matter

I always say if children could write neatly, they would.  So often they can’t because the foundational building blocks are not in place.  The need to be able to draw on the visual-perceptual and motor skills development foundations as they master the task of handwriting.  It is aways critical to consider the foundations when teaching handwriting.

In-hand manipulation well-developed

In-hand manipulation is the ability to move small objects around in the palm of the hand without the other hand helping.  If our children can’t adjust the position of their pencil in their hand the other hand is going to have to do it for them.  Or, they are going to be writing with bad patterns simply because they can’t get the pencil in the right position.

Just right challenge

The just right challenge is a concept we have in occupational therapy.  Children need to be challenged at the appropriate level if they are going to develop their skills.  Make it too hard and they will become despondent and give up.  Make it too easy and they will become bored and lose interest.  We cannot be teaching children formal handwriting before they are developmentally ready.  While they are going to be learning letter and number formation in Grade R, and to write their name in Grade 00, they should not be writing words and sentences.  That really is the domain of the Grade 1 classroom.

Kids don’t catch handwriting skills

In the words of Dr Steve Graham, "kids don't catch handwriting skills!"  As we have covered under Daily practise, handwriting instruction is critical.  Handwriting is just like any motor skill we learn.  We need to practise or we will not be able to master it.  No one would seem surprised if a child experienced difficulty riding a bike if they had no assistance in learning and insufficient time to practice and master riding.  Handwriting is just the same as bike riding.  Your child needs motor skills development practice!

Just like motor skills development, children need to practise handwriting skills. They don't catch them like the flu!Letter formation order is important

If we teach letter formations in formation groupings children can build on the movement patterns they have established for the letters as they go.  This is going to enable them to learn quicker because each letter they encounter is not going to be a completely new movement to master.  Learning them in letter groupings also finds b and d in different groups and allows the child to consolidate and work with the d before they encounter the b.

Letter formation orderMultisensory is a must!

The more information we can give our brain about how a letter is formed, the better it is able to establish the motor maps for the letters.  And this is why multisensory is so important.  Research has shown that verbalising the formation directions of a letter while forming it is a powerful way to consolidate formation patterns. This is why The Happy Handwriter has letter formation songs!

Midline crossing must be established

Not only can a midline crossing delay have an impact on the establishment of a preferred hand, our children find all sorts of sneaky ways to avoid crossing.  This may help them to keep their work on the side of their preferred hands, but they result in awkward motor patterns, positions and postures.  This is not great for achieving a fluid legible script.

Number formation matters

Automaticity in number formation is just as critical as it is in handwriting.  It is no good if your child is so busy working out how to form their numbers that they can’t focus on the calculation they are meant to be doing.  We also want to be sure your child’s numbers are legible.  It really isn’t helpful if they cant be sure what number they have actually written down.

Number formation requires a child to bring together all they have learned about motor skills development together with number recognition and concept, and visual perceptual skills.Occupational therapy can help

Yes! It can!  Don’t hate the OTs!  Private OT is expensive and I get why parents get so anguished by it all.  One of my children needed physio (for what seemed like forever!) and I know how that monthly account can mount up.  And it just kept on coming!

OTs are the bomb when it comes to motor skills development!  They are able to identify the foundational areas that are resulting in shaky handwriting development.  They are also able to focus on the visual-perceptual foundation skills.  All this, and their special skills in sensory processing, enable them to focus on the daily tasks or occupations a child is required to perform.  OT really can help!

does occupational therapy help with handwritingPage positioning is critical

Page positioning is one of my hot buttons!  The biomechanics of our bodies are such that our arms move towards and away from our bodies rather like windscreen wipers.  We do not move in 90° planes like robots!  With this in mind, we really need to remind ourselves to remind our children to tilt their pages and books when writing.  It just makes everything easier!  Handwriting is faster and more fluid if we work with the body mechanics, rather than against them.

Pre-writing skills in place

It like trying to run before you can walk if you try to work on letter formation and handwriting before the pre-writing skills are in place.  Motor skills development takes place in a developmental sequence and we need to be skipping out steps.  The pre-writing strokes includes the basic lines, as well as their ability to reproduce the basic shapes.  Children must at least be able to copy the shapes if you show them an example, and even better if they can draw them from memory.  They are going to need to remember what their letters look like and reproduce them from memory so best to start with that strategy for their pre-writing skills.

pre-writing skillsQuality matters

It really does!  Teachers need to be able to read what our children have written.  We measure our children’s progress by what they write down.  Children who have not mastered the necessary handwriting skills and find putting words down on paper are going to be reluctant to write down all they know whether it be for a story or a test.  We don’t want our children dumbing down what they know because they struggle to write neatly.

Right way the first time

It is very hard to change motor patterns that have become entrenched.  Motor skills development works better if our children master the skills – in this case the motor act of forming letters – correctly the first time.

Sitting posture is critical

If your child is slumping over the table, they are not going to be able to product handwriting of the required standard. Research has shown that children who are well-seated display better fine motor control. And better fine motor control means better handwriting fluidity and legibility.

Posture for handwritingScissor skills are important

The motor skills development of cutting prepares our children’s hands for holding a pencil. I always say our children need to cut to the moon and back! If your child is not engaging in fine motor skills and hates drawing, try and see if you can’t get in through working on cutting skills. It really is one of my top fine motor development activities.

Spiral cutting download from The Happy HandwriterStarting positions matters for formations

Many a handwriting difficulty is borne out of poor use of starting positions. If you start in the wrong place, it is highly likely you are going to head off in the wrong direction.  And heading off in the wrong direction means letter and number reversals.  If we can get the starting positions correct, we are placing ourselves in a better position to achieve good handwriting patterns.  And good handwriting patterns mean more efficient handwriting in terms of speed and quality.

Teachers for the win!

Our teachers are the front-line workers when it comes to teaching handwriting.  They need not to have so many demands placed on the school day that they feel they have no choice but to ditch handwriting to cover the content required by the curriculum.  They need to be free to have time available for consolidation.  When it comes to handwriting, our teachers know practice matters.  They need to have the time and freedom to act on what they know.

Teaching methods matter

There is so much pressure in the school day.  So many things shouting for time and attention.  If we can teach handwriting smarter and enable our children to achieve a functional handwriting script with less classroom time, so much the better.  Teaching methods that apply the principles we have learned about mastering handwriting will go along way to achieve this.

Untidy handwriting affects grades

Dr Steve Graham put the speculation on this one firmly to rest! His study of a piece of work of the same standard written in average quality handwriting, beautiful script and messy handwriting showed some shocking results! The beautifully written work – albeit it of the same quality – achieved grades way above those of the messy handwriting. There is more about his shocking statistics here.

Vertical surface for the win!

The vertical surface is one of my intervention favourites!  You can take away my tables, but please don’t take away the walls!  The vertical is the perfect surface to achieve the optimal hand and wrist position for handwriting.  If we give our children a sensory-motor experience of the feeling of the correct position, they are more likely to be able to achieve it and carry it over into function.

why kids should work on a vertical surface, what is a vertical surface, benefits of working on a vertical surface, drawing on a vertical surface occupational therapy, vertical surface writing, vertical surface activities, vertical surface fine motor skills, vertical surface activities occupational therapyWriting lines really help

I know there are varying opinions on this.  But I truly believe that once children are in Grade 1, they should be writing on lines.  There seems to be a school of thought that if they have to be thinking about the lines, they can’t focus all their working memory resources on writing their story.  I have to say, I have found this to be the opposite.  If they have the lines there, they don’t need to continually worry about the sizing of their letters of about keeping their writing straight.  So we can see there are different schools of thought on this one and we all need to decide what we are going to do about this.

how to teach a child to write on the line, should children write on lineseXpectations

Handwriting must be good enough, not perfect.  We don’t need our children to write with copybook handwriting.  They require handwriting that is neat enough to read, fast enough to get what they need to get down in the time, and easy enough that your poor child’s hand isn’t feeling like it is falling off once they have written down their homework or practised those spelling words.

Yes, older kids can improve their handwriting

Yes they can!  And some of the older kids I have worked with have achieved amazing progress.  Motor skills development is not over once a child enters the senior primary phase of schooling.  However, there is the one over-riding factor.  And that is that the older child has got to want to improve.  Not their mother.  Not their teacher.  Them.

Zig-zags (diagonals) matter

We really can’t expect our children to start with letter formation until they have mastered the basic lines and strokes.  While most of them have the vertical and horizontal line under their belts, diagonal lines can be more challenging.  It really will help them if we give them exposure and build in the diagonal lines before starting with letter formation.

The verywell family explore motor skills development in kids and how it ultimately lays the foundations for handwriting.

In closing about motor skills development for handwriting

Handwriting is a highly complex task which requires a child to bring together so many different skills.  If we want to empower our children with handwriting that is going to carry them through their schooling and beyond, we need to consider providing opportunities for developing all of these foundation skills.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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