I’m going to stick my neck out and say that there is a very direct link between the gene for horrible handwriting and the gene for being a visual learner. When I was little I thought it would kill me to have to write. My handwriting looked tortured and, quite frankly, it tortured those who had to read it.
In 8th grade, I would write down my homework assignments only to arrive home and not have a clue what to do because I couldn’t read my own writing. So I didn’t do my homework.
This unfortunate situation continued through high school. I was in boarding school in the late 60s and my lifeline to my family was letters. The old fashioned letters you had to use a pen or pencil to write. No texting nor email. Pen, paper, envelope, stamp.
My watershed moment
One day I wrote my married sister out on the west coast. When I got a letter back from her it said, “I looked at your letter, couldn’t read it, so I threw it away. If you want me to read your letters, write them so I can read them.”
Ouch. This is a true story. But this dash of cold water prompted me to do something about my handwriting.
Well, that and my English grammar teacher marking me down for not capitalizing correctly. She said, “Just because you write letters larger than the rest doesn’t make them capital letters.”
Oh, and there was that time I passed my paper forward and the very blue-eyed upperclassman in front of me turned around and said, “DARAH? Is that your name?” My capital S, he insisted, looked like a D.
There was only one thing to do. Secretly I took one letter in the alphabet at a time and practiced just that letter until I got something that looked pleasing. You might guess which letter I started with. Capital S.
What I did to help myself
- I chose a basic shape I liked first, somewhat like the one below.
I paid attention to the slant of the letter. That part was hard. At first, my S's were slanting every
which way, teetering as though in a stiff wind. I soon learned that the slant of the first stroke had to be just right or the letter was awkward-looking.
- I noticed the size of the loop at the top and the bottom. If either one is too large, the whole letter looks funny.
- I worked on the rhythm of forming the letter. At first my fingers clutched the pen so hard my knuckles turned white and my fingertips grew numb. Gradually, I learned to hold the pen more loosely and focus on the rhythm of forming the swirls. Starting on the bottom line, I practiced the intrepid stroke slanting up and to the right. Then my pen would loop around to the left and then flow downwards in a slightly curving line, finishing with a little loop.
- I repeated a similar exercise with each letter. I have to say that the more time went by, the more the rhythm of writing took hold and I no longer clutched my pen in a death-grip. When I relaxed into the rhythm, my letters magically looked graceful rather than tortured.
How to help your child
- Motivation – Without this piece in place, your efforts will be wasted. Just imagine making a grouchy 10-year-old sit at a desk to practice writing swirly letters and you will see why motivation is critical to this endeavor. My own experience notwithstanding, negative motivation is not going to work as well for you as positive, intrinsic motivation. Imagine again that 10-year-old boy hard at work forming swirly letters having been threatened with garbage duty until he can make those letters beautifully. No, folks, find the carrot that will lead your sweet child into wanting to practice writing.
- Autonomy – Give your child the lead. Let them decide what they want to practice first, next, and all the way through. Say their choice is to start with capital X. You feel that obscure letter is not a good choice, but rather than suggest a different letter, you are excited with this decision!
- Design – Let your child choose the slant they use. Let them determine which angle feels most comfortable and natural, and then let them know that all tall letters will be like guideposts that show the slant all the other letters will follow.
- Praise – My first year teaching, the principal had a saying that stuck with me forever. Well, two sayings. He would smile and puff out his pinstriped chest and say, “A new day; another chance to excel.” But the saying that transformed me was this one: “Praise approximate performance.” What this means is that rather than correcting the 49 mistakes you see on the paper, find the one beautiful thing and praise it. Negative feedback will not bring your child to focus on excellence. However, if you focus on that one thing that is improving and praise it as though it were already perfect, your child’s focus will snap to the goal you have for them. And if they are capable of doing that one thing better than before, they can do it again and again! Praising approximate performance means finding every sign of improvement and praising the child. Over time, this positive reinforcement will produce more things of beauty just like the first one!
How to make it stick
Appoint your visual learner Primary Card-Signer for the family. You know when you buy a card for grandma’s birthday and you write, “Happy Birthday, Grandma, we love you!” and then your family signs below you? Well, let your visual learner be the primary card signer. This elevated position of responsibility will give them a chance to excel. And the first several times they sign a card, remember to praise approximate performance!