Handwriting Performance 

What is handwriting performance? 

Handwriting is often perceived as just what is able to be put on paper but it is a 2 part process: 

  1. What (Product): this is what the handwriting looks like e.g. is it  neat, legible, written on the line with good letter formation
  2. How(Performance): the method used for handwriting, e.g. is the pencil held appropriately,  is the child slow and laborious or fast and scribbly, does the child complain of pain during the task etc.  

Both these are important and necessary aspects of handwriting. Fluid hand writing is dependent upon:

  • Legibility: It is important that we are able to read what the child has written – this is influenced by their ability to form letter/numbers; writing on a straight line not above or below and on a diagonal;  appropriate spacing should be used (a finger space between each word); and the letters should be the correct size. Before handwriting can be established the child must be able to draw the basic pre-writing shapes’ that combine to form letters and numbers e.g. circles, triangles, squares and zigzags.
  • Mechanics: This is about the child’s physical ability to perform handwriting skills, e.g. does the child have control of their shoulders; elbows; wrists and fingers to enable appropriate pencil fluency and support appropriate; pencil skill endurance which is influenced by pencil grip, finger strength and control, sensory processing (especially in the hand and fingers) and positioning (e.g. posture at the table). 

Why is handwriting performance important? 

Writing as a child is especially important as it is the most common way of assessing the child’s academic ability. As the child gets older it becomes especially important – poor handwriting performance during exams can have a detrimental impact on their results. For children the earlier this is addressed the easier it is for them to change as when they are older they will have already developed bad habits.

The underlying skills that determine handwriting ability are very similar to those that are required for self-care skills e.g. doing up buttons; cleaning teeth; tying shoelaces. 

Typing versus handwriting: 

It is true that as we get older the need to write becomes very limited as now we are a society that rely heavily on computer technology. The pre-requisite skills for efficient keyboard use are the same as for handwriting. It is also sometimes necessary to complete forms, sign things and make short notes, therefore an essential skill to have. 

Building blocks necessary for handwriting include: 

  • Hand dominance
  • Hand division (The ability to use the thumb, index and middle finger for manipulation, leaving the fourth and little finger tucked into the palm, not participating).
  • Hand and finger strength
  • Shoulder stability
  • Letter awareness
  • Number awareness
  • Pencil control (How well a person is able to hold and move a pencil in a designated or desired way which is influenced by finger strength and sensory processing)
  • Pencil mechanics (How the pencil is held and moved, including appropriate pressure applied to the paper with the pencil). 
  • Pre-writing skills (The pencil strokes that comprise most letters, numbers and early drawings (including: l, –, o, +, /, □, \, X, and Δ). 
  • Visual perception (The brain’s ability to interpret and make sense of visual images seen by the eyes). 
  • Planning and sequencing
  • Postural control (The ability to stabilise the trunk and neck to enable coordination of other limbs). 

You will note a child is having handwriting performance when:

  • The child’s pencil grip appears awkward when they are trying to write
  • Their writing that is messy and/or illegible. The letters are not written onthe line and/or are not the correct size or inconsistent – the upper and lower parts of the letters are ignored etc.
  • Letter and/or number formation is awkward, laborious or incorrect. 
  • The child is slow to complete written tasks.
  • The child tires rapidly when writing. 
  • The child fatigues quickly while sitting at a computer to do work.
  • The child is able to explain their ideas verbally, but has difficulties when trying to put them in writing.
  • The child tries to avoid writing, or writes limited answers possible despite verbally answering articulately at length. 
  • The child does not stabilise the page with their non-dominant hand.
  • The child and slumps at the table. 
  • The child applies inappropriate pressure to the paper when writing (either too heavy and frequently breaks the pencil, or too light and ‘spidery’ so it is hard to read). 

Here is a table of average child development of pencil grip

Pencil Grasp Expectations by Age 
 1–1½ years palmer-supinate grasp  The crayon is held in a fisted (whole hand) grasp with the wrist slightly bent in towards the body. The arm moves as a whole unit to move the pencil. 
2-3 years digital-pronate grasp The crayon is held with 5 fingers. The elbow remains still while the forearm moves as a solid unit to move the crayon, resulting in large crayon marks. The crayon is held in mid finger shaft rather than close to the tip of the fingers. 
3½-4 years static tripod grasp The pencil is held with four fingers with a slightly elongated (flattened) web-space. The wrist is held still while the hand moves as a unit, and the wrist is straight not extended. 
4½-5 years dynamic tripod grasp The pencil is ideally held with three fingers and with a rounded web-space that allows ideal isolated finger control for precise and refined pencil control, with the pencil movement generated in the fingers only. The wrist is held slightly extended to allow more isolated finger movement, and the forearm is slightly turned over towards the table. 
5 years + school entry The ideal pencil skills: A three fingered pencil grip with the fingers or thumb not overlapping the pencil or fingers and no hyper-extension (bending backwards) of finger joints. All pencil movement is generated in the isolated fingers (rather than the shoulder, elbow or wrist) which then allows good fluid pencil movement (fluency) for refined control and size. An upright posture at the desk with shoulders relaxed is also important in supporting appropriate pencil skills.