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Occupational therapists’ role in handwriting

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Nohemi Graehl, OTR/L

Most people think of handwriting as a basic skill taught in school. Students commonly use handwriting skills to take notes, answer test questions and complete homework assignments. We rarely think about the connection between poor handwriting skills and school performance.

In a 1992 study, K. McHale and Sharon Cermak looked at the fine motor skills required for students to be successful in a regular elementary school classroom. Fine motor skills are defined as the coordination of small muscles in movements, and rely on the hands and fingers working together with the eyes. This study reported that in the six elementary school classrooms observed, students spent between 30% to 60% of the day focused on fine motor control tasks, with more time concentrated on handwriting than other fine motor skills such as manipulative tasks.

Other studies have shown that students with more legible handwriting have a better chance of achieving a higher grade. However, as schools focus more time on computer skills and less time on handwriting skills, handwriting difficulties in the classroom continue to be an issue.

Occupational therapy practitioners are specialists in fine motor skills, including handwriting. They can assist children and adults in improving their handwriting skills or relearning how to write after an injury or stroke. An occupational therapist (OTR) will typically evaluate a student or patient’s ability to correctly form, space and place letters on a line. OTRs also work with their students and patients on uniformity of letters, sizing of the print, appearance of the letters and pencil pressure.

Occupational therapy focuses on the physical aspect of writing, such as correct grasping of a pencil or pen, and assesses the patient’s ability to write in terms of range of motion and strength of their fingers to hold a pen. In addition, OTRs evaluate the underlying components of writing skills such as speed, reversal of letters and left to right direction.

If your child has problems handwriting at school, or if you have suffered a stroke or a hand injury and would like to receive therapy to improve your handwriting skills, ask your primary care physician for an occupational therapy referral.

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Nohemi Graehl, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist for Eastern New Mexico Medical Center’s Rehab Services. The advice offered in this column is that of the author.