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Handwriting: trial or triumph?

Children with vision impairment can face challenges when learning handwriting. This article explores those issues and some practical solutions.

Image: A blank page of a pad of lined paper with a pen placed on top. There are screwed up balls of the same paper next to the pad.

The new National Curriculum which comes into force in England from September 2014 states that “Writing…depends on fluent, legible and, eventually, speedy handwriting.” In contrast, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence emphasises the need to write independently, without insisting on handwritten text. This raises questions about the importance of handwriting in a contemporary curriculum.

Why learn handwriting?

Handwriting and signatures can be an important expression of our identity. A handwritten note can communicate more personally than an official letter. Learning to write numbers clearly also makes numeracy more straightforward than setting out sums on screen or in braille. So, although learning to use a keyboard or touchscreen is vital for independent learning, children with vision impairment also have a right to learn and be taught handwriting.

But without timely expert support, the handwritten work of children with vision impairment often doesn’t accurately reflect their knowledge, understanding or what they wish to express. They often face additional challenges to developing 'fluent, legible writing' because of their vision impairment.

The most common handwriting difficulties experienced by children with a vision impairment include:

  • uneven spacing of letters within words
  • running words together
  • difficulties keeping to the lines on lined paper
  • inconsistent formation of individual letters
  • variation in size and slant of letters
  • missing out words and parts of words
  • difficulties writing within margins.

Physical development

Children need to develop gross motor control before developing the fine motor skills to use their hands to control a pen or pencil. Children with vision impairment often have reduced opportunities for physical activity in their early years and fewer opportunities to see and imitate the movements of others. To help them develop their motor skills for handwriting, they need as much opportunity as possible for physical activity in the early years.

Vision problems affecting handwriting

Restricted visual field

Children who may not be able to see the whole of a word at a time can find copying activities particularly challenging, as they are constantly having to locate and refocus which can be slow, frustrating and tiring.

Focus and glare

For some children the letter or word they are copying or writing is out of focus to some degree, perhaps as the result of nystagmus or because glasses or lenses cannot correct sufficiently to give a sharp image. This blurred image can make it harder for children to learn to form the right shapes in the early stages of handwriting development. In addition children with photophobia can experience disabling glare when attempting to read or write on certain types of paper.


So, how can you help your child overcome these challenges?

Make it comfortable

Some children need to be much closer to the paper than their peers to see what they are writing – sometimes with their nose almost touching the paper. This can lead to fatigue and shoulder pain, can cast shadow on the paper, and make it harder for teachers to see how children are forming letters.

You can help your child with this by encouraging good posture from the start. Choose chairs and desks that enable the child to have their feet on the floor, and a comfortable working height. Portable raised or sloping desktops can help children to move to different positions in the classroom for group work without compromising individual needs. Some children may be reluctant to have kit which marks them out as different in the classroom, but may welcome a comfortable set-up at home. In addition to good background and directional lighting, clip-on lights can also help children to see and read back their own work.

What to write with?

Experiment! Thick black felt pens or rollerballs are often easier to read back, but felt tips can wear down and go scratchy quickly. If ink smudging is an issue a dark soft pencil (4B) is an alternative. And if a pencil line is too shiny they may prefer a dark blue or black biro. Find what works best, what the child likes and never be constrained by class or school “policies”.

What to write on?

Matt paper with good contrast to the pen. White is not always best. For example for some children a strong yellow achieves optimum contrast with minimum glare.

Paper with faint printed lines and margins is rarely helpful, so seek out or custom-print heavy-lined stationery that will help children see how to position ascenders and descenders. Some children benefit from developing their hand control skills on touchscreen tablet computers, helping to break the taboo of “not being good at writing”. Ask your child’s specialist teacher to recommend handwriting apps that make it fun.

Children who usually write in braille can be taught to write a signature using a signature guide so that as adults they can sign legal and financial documents.

Teaching methods

Teachers should constantly assess any difference in quality and quantity of typed or handwritten writing, so they can judge when handwritten work is compatible with the particular learning objective. Children with a vision impairment may need many more opportunities to see letters correctly formed, and some one-to-one attention to achieve this for themselves.

This article draws on research presented in “Handwriting and children with visual impairments” by Christine Arter, Steve McCall and Tony Bowyer in the British Journal of Special Education, Vol 23 No 1.