Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Writing and Fine Motor Skills

Two generations ago, handwriting received great attention in the schools. Many hours would be spent creating a flowing cursive script akin to calligraphy. The handwriting of our grandparents was often like a work of art in its beauty. Many people mourn those days, but as a person who always struggled with both writing and typing, and the mother of a son with a fine-motor learning disability, I find the current availability of word processors and other writing tools to be a relief.


Do we even need handwriting?

Actually, we do. The most important use of handwriting is one's signature. A signature is a wonderful thing. It is our own personal security code that we'll never forget. It need not be legible. It can be as decorative or plain as we desire. It is a symbol that has historically separated the illiterate from the literate, often with serious legal implications. In every aspect, it is a symbol of our own uniqueness.

Beyond the signature though, we do need our writing to be legible.

We need to be able to fill in forms, as many forms still cannot be filled in on computer. We need to be able to make quick lists and notes to others. Perhaps in the near future our smart phones and such will take over these tasks, but we're not completely there yet.

There are two main kinds of writing for the English language: manuscript (printing) and cursive. Since the type of most fonts falls into the manuscript category, and since traditionally this is what is taught and learned first, there are many people who advocate for its exclusive use. It is easier to read. Some people find it easier to write as they can concentrate on one letter at a time without worrying about the joinings. Many people can print almost as fast as they can write in cursive, assuming they have learned both systems.

But there is another population for which cursive may continue to meet a need. Students with fine motor disabilities may find cursive somewhat more accessible. When printing, the writer needs to position their pencil at the right place on the paper before starting each letter. To help new writers, some teachers use a ruler on the line below and/or show the writers how to space out words by placing a finger down at the end of a word to help them leave a "finger space" between the words. There is still a need to re-position the pencil after each and every letter. For those who fine motor issues, this can become a very onerous task. Add any visual perception difficulties (reversals, flips, "swimming words", etc.) and the task can become near impossible.

Cursive writing can help. When the need to re-position the pencil occurs less often, it becomes easier to complete a word. This doesn't mean the writing will become magically easier; cursive has its own challenges for these learners, such as planning ahead for coming letter placement, and remembering the high and low joining conventions. It can be like learning a new code for writing as it is becoming less common and students are less likely to be familiar with reading it. However, the trade-offs may be worth considering. Those who master cursive often find it faster than manuscript, but this may not be the case for everyone.

Fortunately, there are other options that help alleviate the physical demands of writing. There are adaptive keyboards designed to adjust for pressure, length of touch, etc.; regular word processing, speech to text programs, text to speech programs that allow students to hear their writing read back to them, and visual planning packages, such as Inspire. Each of these meets a different need and most programs offer a free 30-day trial to help you figure out what will best meet your needs.

It is important that students be able to express themselves well and often using whatever means works for them. These adaptations are not "crutches" but needed tools to enable them to continue to develop their communication skills. Slowing them down by forcing handwriting of any kind or even typing may cause them to write less and stunt their development. In such cases, it may be a good idea to separate fine-motor activities (handwriting, typing, drawing, etc.) from the communication activities (stories, poems, essays, reports, speeches, etc.) in order to allow students to continue to develop in both areas.

As homeschoolers, we have usually done things orally to compensate. In a classroom situation, this may not always be practical, but should be considered at least on occasion. Shyer students may need to do this one-on-one with a teacher or aide.

We are trying out various software options, and also working on developing finger strength and control, with the goal of improving legibility as well as increasing typing speed while using software to help with communication and academics in the meantime.

I'll let you know how it goes.