Kristen has been an educator for 25+ years - as a classroom teacher, a school administrator, and a university instructor. She holds a doctorate in Education Leadership.
Johnny is in the third grade. He is a fluent reader and has no trouble with comprehension. Johnny spells his spelling words perfectly at home when his mother quizzes him orally. His mother is concerned and confused because Johnny continues to perform poorly on spelling tests. He cannot seem to spell correctly when he is asked to write words on paper.
What is going on with Johnny? Why can he not transfer his spelling knowledge to written form? It is possible that Johnny is lacking certain skills necessary for accuracy in writing. He may have a disability or deficit in graphomotor skills.
Put simply, graphomotor skills are skills that are required for writing. While it sounds simple, a lot goes into the process of being able to write something by hand. It requires a fine balance of several different skills, and when one or more of these specific skills is underdeveloped or falls short, the whole process can be thrown off.
There are five distinct areas of skill that must all work together in order for handwriting to take place. These include:
- Visual perceptual skills, which are the ability to see a letter or word and assign meaning or judge accuracy
- Orthographic coding, which is the ability to store letters or groups of letters in memory and then retrieve them when needed
- Motor planning and execution, which is also called ''praxis,'' the ability to carry out necessary motor movement
- Kinesthetic feedback, which is the ability to know where a part of the body is in space (in the case of handwriting, the hand and fingers) for the purpose of carrying out necessary motor movement
- Visual-motor coordination, which is the ability to correlate motor movement with visual perception, or the ability physically to create letters and words on the paper
Symptoms of Graphomotor Deficits
When deficits occur in any of the individual areas of skill involved in the graphomotor process, problems may arise in several modalities including handwriting, composition, and even reading. Deficits can occur in any of these individual areas and, in most cases, will involve more than just one skill.
Johnny is having trouble transferring his spelling knowledge to paper; he is showing symptoms of graphomotor deficits. Symptoms of graphomotor deficits might include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Trouble remembering how to spell words
- Trouble recognizing or naming words or letters on a page
- Inability to remember how to form letters or words on the paper
- Sloppy or illegible handwriting
- When writing is legible, it's slow and difficult to create
- Awkward pencil grip
- Poor spatial planning and/or inconsistent spatial relationship between letters or words
- Cramping or pain in the hand when writing
- Inability to multitask when writing, such as being unable to listen and write at the same time
- Preference for oral delivery over written
- Avoidance of writing assignments (including misbehavior, frequent requests to leave the room, or simple refusal to do the work)
- The appearance of laziness or a lack of motivation (which is often out of character) when it comes to writing
- Inability to organize thoughts sequentially when writing
Impact of Deficits in Graphomotor Skills
As any teacher can imagine, deficits in graphomotor skills can have a huge impact on language learning and literacy development.
- The most obvious area of struggle is handwriting. There are many factors in graphomotor deficit that can hinder the handwriting process: poor pencil grip, inability to form letters correctly on a page, problems with placement and spatial planning, and cramping in the hand when writing. All of these factors can significantly delay the handwriting process and make handwriting difficult to read.
- Spelling is often affected as graphomotor deficits prevent a student from successfully recalling the precise letter arrangement necessary to spell correctly. He or she may be able to spell orally, but when asked to write words on paper, there is a disconnect that causes problems in spelling.
- Writing composition might also be affected as students with dysgraphia (a learning disability that affects writing abilities) or dyspraxia (a common disorder that affects fine and/or gross motor coordination) have a hard time organizing their thoughts as they write. They spend so much effort on correct letter formation and concentrate on spelling to a point that content gets lost. Motivation for composition is usually low, too, as writing becomes labor intensive.
- Reading is another area that's often affected when students struggle with graphomotor skills. As they work to remember how letters and combinations of letters work together in print, they might also struggle with basic decoding and sight-word memorization.
All of these areas affect language learning and literacy. A child's language development hinges on the ability to communicate receptively (listening and reading) and expressively (speaking and writing). When there are roadblocks in either of these communication processes, the development of language and literacy are hindered.
Interventions for the Classroom
What can Johnny's teacher do to help him be successful in spelling? What can any classroom teacher do to help and encourage a child struggling with graphomotor skills?
Teachers might consider the following strategies:
- Post an alphabet somewhere in the room (either on the wall or taped to a student's desk).
- Allow students to show what they know orally rather than in written format.
- Allow extra time for those students who struggle to write.
- Teach students how to type and allow them to use a keyboard.
- Teach students how to use voice-to-text technology.
- Give students their own copies of notes and anything that's written on the board.
- Offer fill-in-the-blank types of activities and assessments rather than requiring students to write everything out by hand.
- Assess using multiple choice and/or matching.
- Provide specialized pencil grips.
It is up to the special education team to formally diagnose and remediate any true graphomotor deficits, but these are things that classroom teachers can do to make learning easier.
Graphomotor skills are those skills necessary for a child to write successfully. There are five individual skill areas associated with graphomotor skills.
- Visual perceptual skills - the ability to see a letter or word and assign meaning or judge accuracy
- Orthographic coding - the ability to store letters or groups of letters in memory and then retrieve them when needed
- Motor planning and execution - the ability to carry out the necessary motor movement
- Kinesthetic feedback - the ability to know where a part of the body is in space for the purpose of carrying out necessary motor movement
- Visual-motor coordination - the ability to correlate motor movement with visual perception
All of these individual skills must work together for writing to take place.
There are many symptoms indicating problems with graphomotor skills. These symptoms may be indicative of a deeper need for assistance so as to prevent developmental delays in language and literacy. Students with graphomotor skill deficits will struggle in the classroom, but teachers can employ a number of different strategies and techniques that will make learning less of a struggle for these students.
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