An essential parent’s guide to hand dominance

Even in today’s computerised world, handwriting is an exceptionally important skill. You may use it less as you get older, but learning to write is an essential aspect of a child’s development, of the process of communicating and using language.

For children just learning to write, hand dominance may factor into the challenge. People usually have a dominant hand – for most people it’s the right hand, but there are plenty of left-handers out there, too. This is the hand you throw with, the stronger, more precise hand.

It is also the one you write with.


Child writing

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The solid establishing of hand dominance

Hand dominance is established when one or other hemisphere of the brain becomes the stronger, ‘leading’ side. Some children establish their dominant hand earlier than others, and in their early years, it’s common to see children ‘trying out’ – or, at least, that’s the way it appears – both hands for various activities, or preferring one hand for one task, and the other hand for something else.

It is important establish this dominant hand, however, to proceed with learning. For one thing, as the dominant hand must learn certain skills, the other, assisting hand, needs to learn to help where necessary. There are advantages to being ambidextrous, sure, but hand specialisation is, overall, preferable. It’s the difference between having two ‘pretty good’ hands, and one very good one with a friend around to help out. Batman and Robin, perhaps. It’s important for a child to really develop strength and dexterity in one hand, particularly when it comes to learning to write.


Steps for children who are struggling with hand dominance

If your child is struggling either to attain hand dominance, or if their two hands are struggling to work together, bilateral coordination tasks can be a great help. There are lots and lots of potential bilateral coordination tasks. Playing catch is one of them, for instance. Catching a ball (particularly a ball of any size) requires two hands, one to catch, the other to gather. Anything using paper, like drawing, as the non-dominant hand is needed to keep the paper in place. Screwing lids on and off jars, or any sort of assembly – Lego is good, but any child’s set where you are screwing things together, be it nuts and bolts or plastic screws, promotes the correct coordination really well.


Emergent Writing

Even once a child has established their dominant hand, learning to write is about more than just forming letters on paper. It is a cognitive process of understanding the relationships between sounds, the shapes on the paper and the ‘real’ objects and people we write about. When a child is learning to write, they will go through a series of stages which all progress towards that final product of ‘writing’. Although these stages are not always distinct and self-contained, they are, nonetheless, fairly identifiable.

Firstly, children start with scribbling. It is the simple act of putting pencil – or crayon – to paper and something happening. Children often tend to show a real fascination and this is an enjoyable early part of the process, to see such a clear consequence from their actions. These early scribbles are really more like ‘drawings’, the child expressing his or herself on paper.

Then we get the shapes. Those shapes, or symbols, are the beginnings of what will soon become letters. Circles, of course, are always a feature, but there are other patterns and shapes, the thicker and finer lines that show they are tracing the paths which will lead to greater things. At this stage, play is still so important, the child should be allowed to experiment freely to learn.

The last two stages before what might be called ‘proper’ writing, are the formation of correct letters, followed critically by letters with spaces. The spaces are so very important in this process, as children learn to distinguish individual words, allowing writing to become more than the construction of a bunch of letters.


Sounds of Letters

Finally, briefly, it is important to remember that the whole process of learning to write needs to be linked back to speech. This is an important aspect in the child’s development, as, if writing and speech are allowed to evolve separate to each other, it becomes hard for them to make that link, and makes everything that comes after harder, too.

Early on in their learning, children must be able to identify letters by their sounds, so that they can recognise them in their speech. In this way, speech also becomes another aspect of learning to write. Reading goes along with this, seeing the letters on the page and pronouncing them, feeling the shapes of those sounds coming from their mouth, all reinforces this emergent process.


Image Credits: Michael Backman