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Graphomotor Skills: Why Some Kids Hate To Write

DESCRIPTION OF GRAPHOMOTOR SKILLS Handwriting is complex perceptual-motor skill that is dependent upon the maturation and integration of a number of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills, and is developed through instruction (Hamstra-Bletz and Blote, 1993; Maeland, 1992). While a plethora of information exists in lay and professional literature about many of the common problems experienced by school age children, difficulty with handwriting is often overlooked and poorly understood. Students with graphomotor problems are frequently called "lazy", "unmotivated" and/or "oppositional" because they are reluctant to produce written work. Many times, these are the children who dislike school the most. Because they are sometimes able to write legibly if they write slowly enough, they are accused of writing neatly "when they want to". This statement has moral implications and is untrue; for children with graphomotor problems, neat handwriting at a reasonable pace is often not a choice.

When required to write, children with written production problems frequently engage in numerous avoidance behaviors. They have to go to the bathroom; they need to sharpen their pencils; they need a Kleenex from their backpack. Sometimes they just sit and stare. Even disrupting the class and getting in trouble may be less painful for them than writing. Work that could be completed in one hour takes three hours because they put off the dreadful task of writing.

The following paragraphs will attempt to elucidate the various components of handwriting and the characteristics which students display when there are breakdowns in these components. Components of graphomotor or handwriting skills include visual-perceptual skills, orthographic coding, motor planning and execution, kinesthetic feedback and visual-motor coordination. Visual-Perceptual Skills. Visual-perceptual skills enable children to visually discriminate among graphic forms and to judge their correctness. Thus, visual-perceptual skills involve the ability or capacity to accurately interpret or give meaning to what is seen. Generally a number of specific skills fall into this category including visual discrimination, or the ability to distinguish one visual pattern from another, and visual closure, or the ability to perceive a whole pattern when shown only parts of that pattern. Adequate visual-perceptual skills are a necessary but not sufficient condition for legible written output. Orthographic Coding. A second factor important to the production of legible handwriting is orthographic coding. Berninger and her colleagues (Berninger, Yates, Cartwright, Rutberg, Remy and Abbott, 1992) define orthographic coding as the "ability to represent a printed word in memory and then to access the whole word pattern, a single letter, or letter cluster in that representation" (pg.

260). Thus, orthographic coding refers to the ability to both store in memory and retrieve from memory letters and word patterns. The relationship between poor handwriting and orthographic coding deficits has been empirically established (Berninger et. al., 1992). Motor Planning and Execution. A third component of handwriting is praxis or the ability to plan and execute motor actions or behavior. Fitts and Posner (1967) describe motor skill acquisition as proceeding through three stages. The first phase is called the cognitive or early phase. In this phase, the learner establishes an understanding of the task and a cognitive map of the movements required to accomplish the task.

In the second phase, the associated or intermediate phase, the movement patterns become more coordinated in time and space. During this phase, proprioceptive feedback (the feedback that the brain receives from the muscles and nerves) becomes increasingly important and the importance of visual feedback decreases. The final phase, the autonomous phase, is characterized by the development of larger functional units that are translated into a motor program which then occurs with minimal conscious attention. Luria (1966) notes that a motor action begins with an idea about the purpose of an action and the possible ways in which this action may be performed. The ideas are stored as motor engrams. Thus, in order to carry out a motor behavior, we must have both the idea or image for what must be accomplished (i., the plan) and the ability to match our motor output to that plan. Therefore, both adequate motor planning and execution are necessary for handwriting. Levine (1987) includes in the definition of dyspraxia difficulty with assigning the various muscles or muscle groups to their roles in the writing task.

This definition focuses on the execution or output aspect of dyspraxia. According to Levine, in order to hold a pencil effectively and produce legible handwriting at an acceptable rate, the fingers must hold the writing utensil in such a way that some fingers are responsible for stabilizing the pencil or pen and others are responsible for mobilizing it. In a normal tripod grasp, the index finger is responsible for stabilizing the writing instrument and the thumb and middle finger are responsible for the mobility of the instrument during writing. Kinesthetic Feedback. Yet another component of motor control for legible handwriting produced at an acceptable rate is feedback of the sensorimotor system, especially kinesthetic feedback, during the performance of motor actions. Luria (1966) points out that for effective motor action, there must be afferent impulses from the body to the brain that inform the brain about the location and movement of the body. The body then makes adjustments based on these impulses to alter its movement pattern until the desired pattern is achieved. Thus, it is kinesthetic feedback that facilitates a good match between the motor plan and motor execution. In writing, the writer has a kinesthetic plan in mind and compares this plan to the kinesthetic feedback and then either corrects, persists or terminates the graphomotor pattern (Levine, 1987).


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