Parents the world over are concerned that touchscreen and tablet technology is negatively impacting children’s handwriting. But while some say that technology overuse will impact developing dexterity and handwriting skills, the fact is that there has been no research to date which systematically examines the relationship between technology use, hand strength, and handwriting production. Even in an increasingly digital age, there is no doubt that handwriting remains a crucial childhood skill. There is an abundance of research suggesting that writing by hand helps spelling ability in young children and enables a deeper level of processing compared to typing for learners of different ages. A 2014 study, for example, found that university students could recall more information when taking notes by hand than typing. Researchers attributed this to the fact that writers are not able to handwrite as quickly as they can type, so they are forced to process and selectively decide on the notes to take.

Getting a grip

One of the most contentious issues in handwriting is how one should hold a pen. For years, the dynamic tripod grip—pen held between thumb, first, and middle finger—has been considered to be the most efficient or “correct” way to hold a pen. But while Britain’s national curriculum encourages a dynamic tripod in writing development, it is not mandatory.

Studies have found that the dynamic tripod grip does not offer an advantage over other common alternatives. The biomechanics associated with a tripod grip may make writing less of an effort, but other grips do not seem to hinder handwriting performance in any way. However, if a child has a grip that is clearly not functional—for example, they wrap their hand around the pencil in a palmar grasp—or they are experiencing pain, then this would warrant input.

As yet it is unclear whether using touchscreens impacts the fine motor skills—or ability to manipulate objects skillfully—young children require to grip a pen. In fact, one study which looked specifically at scrolling a screen and its relationship with developmental milestones found no evidence to support a negative association between age of first touchscreen use and early milestones (language as well as fine and gross motor skills). Instead, the authors noted that the earlier a child interacted with a touchscreen device, the sooner they demonstrated achievement of fine motor milestones.

This finding may be due to increased experimentation by the child using fine motor/manual control. But as this is not proven, this research could certainly be a starting point to study the impact of technology use on pen grip and early handwriting performance in more detail.

Handwriting difficulties

Not everyone finds handwriting an easy or natural thing to do. It is a complex skill considered to be “language by hand“—it is not just a motor skill but is closely linked to language, too. So, regardless of whether technology does or does not affect motor skills, a child may still experience handwriting difficulties.

In the early stages of writing development (five to nine years old) the amount and quality of writing (grammar, punctuation, organisation, coherence) a child can produce are strongly predicted by fine motor skill and spelling ability. Both handwriting skill and spelling are important in early writing. But this combination of motor and language demands means that trying to ascertain what has caused a handwriting difficulty can be very tricky.

In clinics and classrooms, we often observe handwriting that is illegible, slow, or painful to produce. But the non-motor skill reasons for this can be different in each child. For example, children with developmental coordination disorder (“dyspraxia”) produce fewer words per minute compared to other children of the same age. But they are able to move a pen just as quickly as their peers despite the motor difficulties that come with dyspraxia.

Children with dyspraxia have a tendency to pause while writing, which has been attributed to poor letter formation impacting on the amount and quality of their text. This “pausing phenomenon” has also been found in children with dyslexia. Though, unlike dyspraxia, children with dyslexia pause within misspelled words, and produce less text of poorer quality.

dyspraxia handwriting
10-year-old boy with dyspraxia: many pauses (red circles) within words due to poor & incorrect letter formation. The Conversation
Dyslexia handwriting
10-year-old boy with dyslexia: pauses occur within words due to spelling difficulties. The Conversation
typical handwriting
10-year-old typically developing boy: pauses occur between words only indicative of developed writing. The Conversation

It is important that children are comprehensively assessed in order to understand the reasons behind any handwriting related issue, and knowledge from research is used to underpin decisions made in the classroom/clinic or at home.

What we do know is that practice and experience is key to acquiring any motor skill. Children should be engaging in activities that help them to develop their fine and gross motor skills both at home and in school. For parents and teachers who may be concerned about a child’s handwriting, the National Handwriting Association has many different resources that can help.

Mellissa Prunty is a Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at Brunel University London, and Emma Sumner is a Lecturer in Psychology and Special Educational Needs at UCL. This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

The Conversation