Righting writing problems



It’s quite common that primary school learners show uneven development when it comes to fine motor skills. The small muscle coordination needed for printing and writing seems to develop more slowly than other abilities. This is more often seen in boys than girls. The boys, however, seem to be better able to manipulate small objects like Lego, computer mouses, and screwdrivers than pencils, so their skill with these objects doesn’t reflect their struggles to control a pencil.

Many of them may, as a result, develop some anxiety related to written work.  They may be fluent speakers and communicate brilliant ideas or relate experiences with gusto, but come to a halt when asked to write it down. Children typically equate ‘fast’ with ‘smart’ so when they cannot produce good written work quickly, they stop trying, work too fast and carelessly and make excuses about written work being ‘too boring.’ This develops into them disliking writing and developing anxieties about written tasks. 

Last week, I shared Dr Sylvia Rimm’s tips for reducing reading anxiety.  This week, I’m summarising the suggestions she gives for helping children overcome ‘pencil anxiety’.  The source is her book ‘Why bright kids get poor grades: and what you can do about it.’

  • Encourage the child’s use of a computer or other keyboard for all drafts when asked to write a story or complete other written tasks.The schools are more open to this these days and may even allow the child to hand in the printed work rather than struggle to write it out.
  • Allow your child to use fine line markers instead of pencils as their fibre tips run more easily over the paper. Ask the school to give permission for their use in the classroom as well.
  • Make comments that will help to change expectations. Tell the child that intelligence and speed are not the same. Some examples are:
  • Although some smart children finish work quickly, others, just as smart, are slow workers
  • Quality is more important than quantity
  • Authors always write may drafts before they feel satisfied
  • Try this ‘speeding’ exercise. It’s a personal self-competition model. They can copy written material or write out maths facts. You’ll need a stopwatch and multiple sheets of the same maths facts or written material to copy. Have them first copy the material and set a baseline time to record on a calendar.The next day they can write the same material and mark the time. The goal is to beat their own time. Writing the same material every day may get boring, but they’ll soon fine they can write much faster. They’ll become much more relaxed about times tests if timing becomes a daily habit and they can see their improvement.

Of course, some children need help to strengthen the small muscles responsible for pencil control.  Usually help can be given by an Occupational Therapist and schools are quick to refer to these professionals. 

If you don’t have access to an OT, here are two strengthening exercises that you can do at home:

  • The child squeezes and releases a stress ball in one hand several times, then changes hands. Encourage the habit of using the stress ball during times of relaxation, such as watching TV or driving in the car. The hand does get tired as the muscles feel the work-out so don’t overdo it.Doing the exercise regularly is more important than the length of time spent on it.
  • Take a length of toilet paper (start with about 1 metre).The child holds one end in his hand and crumples the length into a ball in the palm of his hand.  When he’s finished, straighten the paper and let the other hand have a turn. Even though we want to strengthen the muscles of the writing (dominant) hand, we want to work on both hands. This activity can also be done while watching TV or driving in a car.  As the hands get stronger, lengthen the strip of paper.

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