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Our children are growing up in an era where keyboarding skills are starting to dominate handwriting skills. It has even been suggested that handwriting skills are no longer essential now that electronic devices which enable us to communicate in written form are freely available. However, handwriting skills play an important role in a child’s development and failure to actively develop those skills will have consequences far beyond an inability to write by hand.
Handwriting skills began when your child first picks up a crayon and begins to scribble. Handwriting helps to develop fine motor skills essential for a myriad of tasks including writing, drawing, doing up a button, tying shoelaces, peeling vegetables, tying a fishing fly – anything that requires finger dexterity.
The simple act of holding a pen or pencil properly, guiding it along the paper in many directions to create letters and words, and exerting various degrees of pressure, is no small feat. The level of brain activity required to complete this task has no equivalence in keyboarding. When it comes to brain development, the difference between keyboarding and handwriting has been likened to the difference between playing the triangle and playing the violin.
English is not the easiest language when it comes to reading and spelling – there are many rules, and exceptions to those rules, to learn. Recent brain scan studies have shown that early handwriting skill development provides a child with stronger and longer lasting recognition of the characters of the alphabet, suggesting that the specific movements memorised when learning how to write aid the visual identification of graphic shapes. Keyboarding doesn’t have this effect.
Pictures of the brain have also illustrated that handwriting activates massive regions of the brain involved in thinking, language and working memory – the system responsible for temporarily storing and managing information. Primary school children have also been found to write more words, write them faster, and express more ideas when writing by hand verses with a keyboard.
A writing learning disability (known as dysgraphia) is a neurologic disorder which makes the act of writing difficult. It is generally characterised by a profound inability to form meaningful symbols. The child with dysgraphia produces distorted or incorrect letters in his or her attempt to write. This can result partly from:
Visual-spatial difficulties: trouble processing what the eye sees
Language processing difficulties: trouble processing and making sense of what the ear hears
A disorder of written expression is more than just poor handwriting (which could be as a result of a developmental coordination disorder); it involves problems relating to grammar, punctuation, and poor paragraph organisation, as well as excessively poor handwriting.
Prevalence rates for dysgraphia are difficult to establish because it is almost always accompanied by other learning disorders. Many children who are identified as having dysgraphia also have dyslexia.
Just having bad handwriting doesn’t mean a person has dysgraphia. Since dysgraphia is a processing disorder, difficulties can change throughout a lifetime. However, since writing is a developmental process—children learn the motor skills needed to write while learning the thinking skills needed to communicate on paper—difficulties can also overlap.
As with all learning disabilities, dysgraphia is a lifelong challenge, although how it manifests may change over time. A child or young person with this disorder can benefit from specialist assistance.