Separating the Hand from the Writing

by Jeanne Faulconer, Standardsville
Originally published in the January-February 2013 VaHomeschoolers Voice

If your child is struggling with written composition, have you considered separating the hand from the writing? Many kids have trouble combining the mechanical effort of handwriting—using a pen or pencil on paper—with the expository effort of creating a poem, short story, essay, or report. The work of handwriting can actually block the flow of words and the young writer’s voice.

The lament “I can’t write” may be grounded in the child’s struggle to manage multiple tasks which are actually very different from one another. Recalling the shapes of letters, forming them legibly, using fine motor skills,  struggling with erasures, and overcoming perfectionism (the parent’s or the child’s) can take much or all of a child’s ability to focus, leaving the child few or no resources for thinking about the story or the words or the facts he or she would like to convey. It’s just too much to handle.

A fairly frequent solution offered to many kids is to use a computer for composition. While learning to use a keyboard may also seem overwhelming, there are significant differences from handwriting that may allow the child to focus on composition while typing. The fine motor skills used are different. There is no necessity to grip a writing implement, which takes a kind of strength that some kids have difficulty mustering. The pressure to make no errors and the fear of “ruining” a piece of paper disappear. With keyboarding, there is no need to both recall the letter’s shape and re-create the letter’s shape—recalling the letter and locating it on the keyboard are enough.

Some kids simply gravitate toward keyboarding. The click-click of their fingers  and the immediacy of the appearance of letters and words on paper are sensual rewards that create flow. Over time, such a child will be able to bypass the block caused by handwriting and type out the words and sentences traveling through the brain.

Another solution is to use a recording device. A child can speak into a digital recorder or use the computer’s microphone and voice recording software. After getting the words out, the child can replay the recording, either typing the words as they are replayed, or writing them down by hand. Having an adult help with the playback process will help most children coordinate remembering a phrase or sentence long enough to get it down on paper or into the computer. Some families have also experimented with voice transcription software, but it can take quite a bit of time and effort to get the software to recognize and “understand” particular voices. Still, it might be worth a try.

My favorite approach for separating the hand from the writing is for the child to use a scribe. A parent or older sibling or friend acts as the scribe, writing down the words for the child. At the earliest stages, scribes might also ask leading questions to get things started. It can be amazing how using a scribe liberates the child to speak freely and simply tell the story.

At home with my own sons, I was scribing as soon as they could talk, writing down their words to give their artwork titles or to add a sentence one of them spoke while telling me about their pictures. This morphed into scribing whole stories into homemade books. Scribing has an intimacy the other techniques can’t match. The child has the feeling of telling the story to someone close, and there is trust that the listener is getting it down. The impact is immediate.

I have led writing groups and taught classes where some children are using scribes, some are using laptops, and other kids are doing their own handwriting. If the adults are matter of fact about it, the kids are good at accepting their own and their friends’ different approaches.

Some people might worry that not requiring children to write their own words is somehow not rigorous enough. However, over many years of homeschooling my own children and helping other families, I’ve found that children will gravitate toward getting as many of their own words down as possible as they mature. Some few children with learning challenges such as dysgraphia might never become great at handwriting, but this is commonly accepted in business and higher education these days, so it hardly seems a disadvantage.

The advantage, of course, is that during all the years handwriting was too challenging, the child was still able to compose thoughts and see them born on paper. Retellings of Greek myths, observations of crayfish, letters to Granny, stories of space travel, all are free to form, unblocked by the effort it takes to make a scratchy pencil write out squirrelly letters that won’t cooperate.

Does this mean handwriting has to be abandoned? Indeed not. It too can flourish when unhinged from composition. Copywork, letters-as-art, and s-l-o-w deliberation over writing names and labels and phrases can be enjoyed by children who aren’t fearful this might turn into more than they can manage.

Is there a time to push a child to merge both handwriting and composition? In most cases, kids will simply begin combining both when they’re able. However, parents know their kids best, and after a child has shown some real growth, sometimes a parent’s assignment or insistence to “try it in your own handwriting” will be the leadership a child needs.

In the meantime, a child can grow more confident in both handwriting and composition by pursuing them separately. If handwriting becomes a major contributor to Early Onset Writers’ Block, it can take years to work through that. Better to help young writers pronounce their thoughts with clarity, establish a confident voice, and get their words on paper—because there is nothing like the power a child feels seeing those thoughts spun into written words.

About the Author

Jeanne Faulconer and husband Rick are the parents of two homeschooled grads and a fourteen- year-old still learning at home. She is the former editor of VaHomeschoolers Voice and enjoys writing and speaking about homeschooling.

Originally published in the January-February 2013 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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