Despite advancements in technology, handwriting is still the most common and necessary means of communication and evaluation of a child’s knowledge in school, in particular the primary and elementary school grades. A misperception by some is, “As long as I can read it, I don’t care how it’s written”, so handwriting has eroded from the curriculum and is not practiced as a priority at home. This is a serious problem. It is assumed that children will automatically acquire the skill of handwriting. However, this is not the case for all children. When left to their own resources, children improvise and develop inefficient pencil grasps and writing skills. Self-taught writers may do ﬁne initially (in the primary grades) and their writing may look neat; however, when writing demands increase beyond grade 3, their writing may not be functional and that’s usually when the frustration and tears begin. This is because an inefficient pencil grasp or improvising/ “drawing letters”, as opposed to a consistent and efficient approach to letter formation, takes a lot of attention, effort and time. This may result in fatigue when writing and work may take too long to complete. Writing may also be illegible, disorganized and appear immature, which can be embarrassing for the child. Then add the expectation of proper spelling, spacing, capitals, indentation, punctuation, grammar, and the task becomes overwhelming!
To set our children up for success, they first need to be guided in developing fine motor skills to hold a pencil correctly and then taught correct and consistent habits of letter formation from the beginning (JK/SK/gr.1). This means being taught to print letters in the same way, from the top to the bottom, each time. They need to be provided with plenty of opportunity to practice repetitively at school and at home so that handwriting becomes an automatic & efficient tool for written communication. Fun ways to encourage consistent letter formation and develop printing skills at home (in addition to paper/pencil tasks) is to use your finger to write on shaving cream smeared on the shower wall or writing in sand, or on a plate of jello powder. Parents can also encourage children to do traditional paper/pencil activities like mazes, dot to dots, word searches and other fine motor activities (i.e. Lego, beading and rainbow loom!) to develop visual motor skills and an efficient pencil grasp. For good postural development, when doing desk work at home, ensure that your child is seated at a child sized desk with feet supported on the floor (alternatively, use a foot stool).
In the elementary grades, it is also very important that children have the opportunity to practice writing sentences daily. This can be maintained at home by encouraging children to write in a journal, maintain a “to do” list, add to the grocery list, etc. Writing in script (cursive hand writing) is also an important literacy skill to learn as it is developmentally easier to use and is more efficient than printing. That would also give children the skill to compete globally and be able to read the cursive writing of those in other nations who write in cursive, their parents’, grandparents’ and other’s, including historical letters and texts!
We would all agree that reading is an essential life skill. However, some would argue that printing is not, and this is one reason that less emphasis is placed on this skill at home and in the classroom. However printing builds the foundation for literacy. Learning to print is a precursor for reading, spelling, sentence formation and grammar. The physical act of writing boosts learning because movement aids memory and engages multiple areas of the brain. Furthermore, MRIs show that neural activity in the brain when writing improves idea composition, expression and fine motor development. Handwriting establishes core developmental skills that cannot be established with the use of a keyboard.
Although computer technology is fantastic and has enabled us to do the unthinkable, advances in technology have mistakenly led us into thinking that computers will take the place of printing, math and even basic learning skills. During the formative years of brain and body development (0-12 years) a child learns best through movement and social interaction. Deprivation during this time due to technology overuse may result in permanent damage to vision, learning and development. Technology cannot provide the same developmental learning benefits of a paper and pencil in the primary grades and should not be used to replace written learning activities. While I am a strong advocate for the use of technology as a compensatory tool for writing for a child with an identified learning disability, and I agree with the use of selective and balanced use of technology in the classroom beyond gr. 6, I do not suggest computer use in the class before gr. 6 unless it’s exclusively to learn the skill of keyboarding or used for researching, reading and/or presenting information. Technology use at home and in the classroom should also be in compliance with the recommended guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric society (1hr/day for children aged 3-5, 2hrs/day for children aged 6-18). Technology use should NOT replace the skill of hand written assignments during this significant period of brain and body development.
It is important to note that technology overuse can actually impede a child’s ability to learn. Not learning writing because we can use a computer is like not learning math because we can use a calculator. The average North American elementary child uses TV, video games and computers on average 8 hours per day and this has resulted in physical and emotional developmental delays, attention difficulties and poor school performance.
Research statistics on technology overuse indicate:
- 30% of children enter school with delayed development
- 20% of children are obese
- 3% of children with a diagnosed mental illness
- 20% of children are illiterate
- 8% of children have ADHD
- Myopia (nearsighedness) rates are up 80% in Asian countries due to increased technology use. Myopia is associated with potentially blinding complications such as glaucoma, retinal detachment and myopic macular degeneration
- child aggression and unmanageable behavior is increasingly the norm (related to technology overuse by children and parents)
resource: Cris Rowan, www.zonein.ca
Considering these statistics, balanced technology use at home and school is imperative and needs to be modeled by parents and educators and reflected in school policies, restricting technology use at school and recess so that children can interact, play, exercise, socialize and learn.
Writing is a complex task and is the foundation skill that helps to establish and hone so many other important functional skills that are required for learning (fine motor skills, eye hand coordination, visual perceptual skills, visual tracking, bilateral coordination, and literacy). These skills cannot be developed with use of a computer alone. If we sacrifice learning fundamental writing skills and replace it with computer time, or allow kids to play on their iPods/phones/computers/portable digital games during recess, or excessively at home, we will inadvertently stunt their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.
Joanne Conte Casola OT Reg. (Ont) is a school-based Occupational Therapist in private practice