When I ask a parent to describe their concerns regarding their child’s handwriting, I usually hear one of the following responses:
“You can’t really read it.”
“It doesn’t look as good as his peers.”
While that’s all well and vague, it’s up to me to determine not only what’s wrong with their child’s handwriting, but also what’s fixable. So here is my process…
Step 1: Gather the data.
I don’t even start off by asking a child to write. I first look at underlying skills related to handwriting. This usually includes clinical observations of motor skills, stability of supporting joints, pencil grasp, hand strength, etc. You have to look at the foundation before you can fully address anything else.
Standardized testing typically starts with The Developmental Test of Visual Motor Integration (AKA the Beery VMI).
I like this test because it is broken down into three subtests which assess the building blocks for writing.
These subtests include:
Visual Motor Integration (Taking in visual information and using it appropriately for motor output such as writing, drawing, throwing a ball, using a utensil, etc.)
This portion of the test involves the child copying various shapes and forms which increase in difficulty.
Visual Perception (The ability to appropriately process visual input.)
This portion of the test focuses on matching two shapes when one is among similar shapes.
Motor Coordination (Skilled control of motor movements.)
This portion of the test requires the child to draw within the guidelines of shapes that also increase in difficulty. They have to demonstrate pencil control to remain inside the lines.
This test is fairly quick, and can offer a lot of insight into areas of difficulty. If concerns are sparked by this test, a therapist can pull out other evaluations to further assess specific areas such as visual perceptual skills or motor coordination, but this is a solid place to start.
There are also several handwriting assessments available, including the ETCH, or The Print Tool. But let’s be honest- I hate these. They take forever to score and don’t give me any real additional insight, except maybe for goal writing and tracking purposes.
I can usually get a sense of legibility issues by watching a child complete a handwriting sample. Sure, parents can bring in a handwriting sample from school, (that usually allows me to see their day to day writing as opposed to the “better than average” sample I usually get in the clinic) but I also want to see the child writing in front of me to assess how they create each character.
Step 2: Analyze the data
If I’ve completed a formal handwriting evaluation then I’ll spend some torturous twenty minutes expertly measuring letter sizes and assessing each stroke and the order in which it was completed.
I mostly see The Print Tool handwriting assessment around other clinics and my own, so I’ll talk about that one in specific. It’s made by Handwriting Without Tears, but each letter is scored based on the specific handwriting program that the child has been instructed in. (See my review of these different handwriting programs here.)
This evaluation measures letter memory, placement on the line, sizing, orientation, start point, and sequence formation. All important components of letter writing, but also observable in a simple handwriting sample.
Here is my main issue with a test like this- Yes, it creates an objective way to measure handwriting skills, but does it truly assess legibility in a functional sense?
For example, let’s say that a child makes a legible letter ‘M’. For complete credit on the assessment, the child has to start at the top, draw a straight line down, and then come back up to the top to finish the strokes. If the child starts at the bottom to make the letter… deductions! What do I say to that? Who. Cares.
There are only a few situations when this would really matter to me:
- The letter is completely illegible.
- The child is unsure of their letter formations and is starting at the bottom out of sheer confusion.
- Their letter habits are slowing them down to a less functional rate in the classroom.
- Their irregular letter formations are causing reversals.
Otherwise, it’s basically a stylistic choice, and most likely a HABIT. These handwriting habits are formed early. I have parents come to me with their 10 year olds, saying “I want to fix these handwriting issues while they are still young.”
To that I have to say- it’s a little too late. If a child that age truly needs to change the way they form their letters, they had better be very motivated and their parents had better be ready for lots of practice. It’s essentially learning a completely new habit to replace an old one. I’ve seen it done in children as old as 16, but these guys worked at it, page after page, every day, until these new habits took over.
Think of your own handwriting. There is no way you make each letter exactly as you were instructed in school. Imagine if I said that your perfectly legible R’s are all wrong because you don’t make them according to a specific handwriting program. Now you will be forced to change the way you make them. Think of how hard you would have to think every time you made an R from now on. It might drive you crazy.
Step 3: Recommendations
From all of that data collection, I have to decide whether to recommend therapy or not. Technically, if anything is below average on any of my standardized tests, I can rightfully recommend therapy.
However, I have to think of what I could actually change about a child’s handwriting. As I’ve mentioned in detail, it is a big decision to determine if specific letter formations need to be changed. Issues like spacing and line placement can have a huge impact on legibility, and are easier to address and change. Either way, everyone has to be on board with this process.
An important idea to keep in mind during this process is to decide when therapy will be completed. AKA, when will the child’s handwriting be “good enough” to warrant discharge?
This can be a sticky situation. I’ve had parents swear up and down that their child’s handwriting is still a mess, even when they meet all standardized requirements.
At that point, the children are usually so sensitive to their parents’ criticisms that they begin to hate handwriting in general. This poor little girl I worked with had absolutely beautiful handwriting by my standards. However, her parent was never satisfied with what she saw. It was a lose-lose situation.
Now I know this isn’t the norm for every parent, but I definitely like to sit down with everyone and decide what exactly needs to be changed, and how we will determine when we get to where we need to be.