When learning to write is less important than learning to write your name

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Advance for OT August 2012

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L

A rising 6th grader, Johnny* (not his name) was sent to WIN™ (Write Incredibly Now™) handwriting camp.  His mother’s goal was for him to learn to write sentences and know his cursive alphabet automatically.  Johnny’s goal was to learn to write his name.

It was a goal from which he could not be deterred.  He wanted to write his first and (long) last name fluently.  His motivation for this was in hyper-drive.  So choosing to move from a point of success to more success. Johnny learned to write his name.  It took all week.

It should be noted that in addition to writing the camp covered midline orientation, pincer grasp, bilateral coordination, spatial organization, figure ground discrimination and visual tracking.  Utilizing crafts and games that were sensory-kinesthetic based, Johnny learned how to use his body so that he was comfortable sitting, reaching, and writing as well as being aware of those close to him.

It was a lot to cover in the short 12 hours made even shorter by his refusal to learn to write anything other than his name.  But his name, having so many letters and letter combinations did feed into the flow-go-stow patterns necessary for automatic writing.

Which brings my therapeutic soul to question, “Who’s goals should I be meeting?”  Clearly I met Johnny’s goals, but equally clearly, I did not meet his mother’s.  This has been a conundrum for me, and I suspect many of my colleagues as well.

I feel that it is impossible, particularly with older children to force goals upon them and that success breed’s success.  By meeting his goals first I was then able to go on to meet the other goals in a follow-up session.  Mom was satisfied, and Johnny was happy he had learned to write his name and please his mother.

It is important to understand the symbolic importance of writing one’s name.  While doing PRN work at a spinal center I met a man who was a recent quadriplegic.  A successful businessman, his goal was to learn to write his name again, so that he could sign payroll checks, contracts and related business papers.  This was more important to him than learning to dress, feed or perform personal hygiene tasks.  But once he had learned how to sign his name, interest in the other tasks became important to him.

Handwriting is daunting.  It is intimidating for many. It is a graphic example “advertising” oneself.  It is semi-permanent; more so than the spoken word that quickly dissipates into air.  It is on paper and it is visible for both the writer and the reader.  If it is messy, not legible, or otherwise unacceptable it can serve as an unexpected example of one’s related abilities.

Keith Berry, Ph.D., the author of the Visual Motor Integration (VMI) tests, states that  “…Besides the fact that handwriting, as a common graphic behavior, is a natural vehicle for teaching, there are broader reasons for focusing upon it.  Our schools are encountering increasing numbers of children who lack solid mental and social foundations, and who are at risk of becoming school and social dropouts. Handwriting is frequently an indicator of children’s mental and social foundations.  If a child lacks an adequate mental foundation, in the Piagetian sense, because of insufficient sensory-motor and other experiences, it tends to show up in poor handwriting.  Similarly, if a child lacks an adequate social foundation—has not developed basic self-respect and respect for other—it also tends to evidenced in poor handwriting.” (pgs125-126 VMI Scoring Manual, 4th Edition, Revised).

Teaching handwriting is a sensory motor skill and it is an emotional/social one as well. It is essential that it be a standard part of both the elementary and middle school curriculums.  And this needs to be communicated by school-based occupational therapists throughout the country.  The United States of America is the only western industrialized country that does not have a uniform handwriting program.

Writing our name is basic.  We learn this in preschool.  It is our first academic source of pride.  It is step one in the process of learning to read and write.  As a profession we need to remind school administrators that even in a computer based society, handwriting matters.  And it all starts with clearly writing one’s name.