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Supporting a Child with Handwriting Difficulties – Symptoms of Dysgraphia

My son, AC, has been struggling with handwriting since it was first introduced to him in Nursery and Kindergarten. He dislikes colouring, and unlike his siblings, hardly ever asks for paper to scrawl and scribble on.  We assumed he had other interests, so we just let him be.  However, he was also slow in learning to read, and we wondered for some time if he might be dyslexic. Thankfully, things clicked for him and he started reading haltingly in the second half of his K2 year.  However, his handwriting difficulties persisted – he cried when his teachers made him do handwriting practices, and resisted going to school because “there is too much to write”.

At this point, we brought AC to the Child Development Clinic for occupational therapy sessions.  I also did a lot of reading up, and this really opened my eyes to the world of “dysgraphia” – where a child struggles with handwriting only, and has no other physical or mental impairment.  In my coming blog entries, I will share some of the things we have tried to do to help AC, as well as other children in our Early Learning Programme (ELP). Hopefully some of our tips can help you too. 

Handwriting is a complex skill which requires not only well-developed fine motor abilities, but visual skills, visual-motor coordination as well as short and long term memory.  EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT – they learn to write at their own pace and each child’s handwriting is unique. But here are some Symptoms of Handwriting Difficulties that I noticed in AC and other children in ELP in their 6th year. If they persist over time despite teaching and correction, the child may need additional help

1. Odd pencil grip or quick fatigue after writing for a short time: the child may hold the pencil like a brush, with 2 or 3 fingers covering their thumb or vice versa. He/she may grip the pencil too lightly, or too tightly. Similarly, they may press too hard or too lightly when writing/colouring or drawing.  Often, they grip the pencil very close to the tip, which may give a false sense of ‘better control’.

Different INcorrect pencil holds

2. Problems with Posture: the child slouches often and/or places his/her head on the table while writing.  He does work on paper one-handed or may be unsure how to place her arm or shoulder when writing or colouring.

3. Avoids work involving holding a writing apparatus and working on paper: the child may rarely initiate any colouring, drawing, writing activities, and when invited to, may try for a while then "escape" to do other things.

4. Struggles to colour within lines or to cut and paste accurately – the child’s colouring pieces and cutting-and-pasting work are often messy.

Cut and Paste Work - AC at 6 years old

5. Finds it difficult to form shapes and symbols – Initially, the child may struggle with drawing closed shapes – the easiest to draw would be circles, then rectangles and finally triangles.  This should improve with practice, but the child may continue to find it challenging to trace curves, loops and zig zag lines.

Difficulties forming closed shapes

This may mean greater difficulty later in forming letters and numbers, which requires the child to recall what the symbols look like, then manipulate a writing instrument to form them.  Children may produce letters or numbers that are more squiggles than symbols, and even when copying, often reverse letters or come up with inaccurate formations. This happens especially in writing English small letters or numbers. For example, children commonly confuse letters like “p” ,”q”,”b” and “d”. Even neurotypical children can reverse such letters as well as numbers like “2”, “5”, “9”, “7” until age 7+.  Chinese words are even harder - a small stroke pointing in the wrong direction means the whole word is wrong.

Number reversals at Primary 1 (6 years 5 months)

6. Words are poorly (or not!) spaced – the child’s words may run off a line or a page because it is hard for her to plan word spacing. The words may all be mashed together or letters in individual words could be too far apart.  Letters could be “levitating” off the line, or sinking under when they are not supposed to.  This problem is compounded when writing Chinese characters where each “word” has more components that need to be correctly placed and oriented within a square space. Characters that are wrongly spaced could form new or no words!

AC's Writing at 6 years and 1 month (K2)

Ever since AC saw the Occupational Therapist near the end of his K2 year, we started working at home to build his core muscles, correct his letter reversals and improve his pencil grip. Things were on the upturn but when he started Primary 1 this year, we saw a deterioration.  Sharon, our partner Literacy Therapist, confirmed that many children with learning difficulties tend to show a “resurgence” of their symptoms when they enter Primary 1 – likely because of the need to adjust to a new environment as well as the increase in reading and writing demands.  We will keep trying with the hope that he will improve with different daily practices.


About the Author

Hsin Ee is a mum of a bunch of rowdy and active boys. If you see a woman hollering madly at three boys in a shopping mall or a MRT station, it's probably her.


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