Years ago, at an educational conference, a teacher stopped by to ask some questions about handwriting instruction. She was particularly frustrated with one of her first-grade students, who just wouldn’t hold her pencil correctly. The girl held her pencil with her thumb tucked under her first and second finger.
“I’ve tried everything!” the teacher lamented. I assured her that we could find a solution to help her student.
To get a better understanding of what we were dealing with, I asked the teacher how the student’s pencil grip was affecting her handwriting. The teacher asked, “What do you mean?” To clarify, I asked about some common effects of incorrect pencil grip:
- Is her writing illegible?
- Does she get tired or experience discomfort when she’s writing?
- Does she write so slowly it’s difficult to complete her assignments in time?
In response, the teacher laughed. “Oh, no, her handwriting is fine!” she said. “She writes beautifully. She just refuses to hold the pencil correctly.”
We hear similar comments with alarming frequency. The third-grader with beautiful cursive writing, except for the fact that the letters are perfectly vertical (“How do I get her to slant her letters?”). The kindergartner who makes a perfect a, d, g, and q, but does so using continuous stroke (“He just refuses to make the circle and then lift! How do I fix it?”). The students who write just fine, but have adopted a bizarre pencil grip or paper position that “needs to be fixed.”
What Is the Ultimate Goal of Handwriting Instruction?
The examples above raise the question: What’s more important, the mechanics or the end result? The ultimate goal of handwriting instruction is not a perfect pencil grip or cursive letters with a precise 65-degree slant. The ultimate goal is practical application of the skill, which can be broken down into three points:
- We want students to write legibly. Writing is meant to be read, to communicate a message to the reader. If students’ writing is so messy they can’t read their own notes or their teacher can’t read the answers on a test or assignment, that’s a serious problem that can affect achievement across the curriculum.
- We want students to write fluently. Handwriting should be an automatic process, so that students can focus on the content of what they’re writing, not the mechanics. If their handwriting is slow and labored, they may have trouble taking notes and completing tests and quizzes in time. They may also produce shorter, lower-quality compositions.
- We want students to write comfortably. If students experience muscle fatigue and discomfort (due to incorrect pencil grip or posture, for example), it’s likely to interfere with both the fluency and the legibility of their writing. Associating handwriting with discomfort may even cause students to avoid writing altogether.
In order to accomplish our goal of practical application, we do recommend certain practices to maximize the chances for success. We recommend a tripod pencil grip. We recommend specific paper positions for left- and right-handed students. We recommend writing the strokes of a letter in a specific order and direction. We recommend a certain posture and desk height.
That said, it’s SO important to remember that these are recommendations. Yes, they’re based on years of experience and research, and we’ve seen them lead to enough successes to consider them best practices. However, just like every other aspect of education, handwriting development is not one-size-fits-all.
We can’t become so focused on adhering to the “rules” that we forget what we’re working towards: helping students learn to write so that they can write to learn. And that means accepting those occasional quirks that, while perhaps not considered “best practice,” don’t interfere with the student’s ability to effectively write by hand.
When to Intervene
Unconventional handwriting practices that DO interfere with a student’s ease of writing should certainly be addressed. Writing by hand is such a valuable learning tool – the last thing we want is for handwriting difficulties to disrupt students’ learning!
When a student struggles with the mechanics of handwriting, and that struggle affects other areas of learning, they may require intervention. If you’ve tried basic corrective techniques to help the student but don’t see improvement, an occupational therapist can assess the student’s needs and develop a remediation plan.
However, for those students who write legibly, fluently, and comfortably, there’s no need to force change. Just enjoy the fact that they can effectively apply this skill and that you can read their writing!
What are the strangest handwriting habits you’ve ever seen from your students? Did these habits interfere with the student’s ability to write by hand? Comment below!