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Left-handed Writers

by Nan J. Barchowsky

Is your child left-handed? If he or she is young, hand dominance may not yet be evident. Watch for the hand that reaches for a toy, pushes a door open, or throws a ball. If a child, young or older, changes hands for different tasks, he or she may be ambidextrous. Many teachers, and even pediatric occupational therapists fret over the establishment of hand dominance. Why? Adults who can work with either hand are blessed. 
If you are right-handed, and teaching a left-hander you may feel unsure about how to go about it. It’s far less difficult than you may imagine. 
Left-handers who write poorly are often pardoned with, “But he is left-handed.” It is not the fault of handedness. Our Western alphabet favors right-handers, but it need not be difficult for left-handers. Many write as well as right-handers. Both learn best at an early age with a good program. Nevertheless, older kids can resolve legibility and speed issues too.
Posture and paper placement are critical. A hooked wrist is hurtful if a handwriting session is prolonged. Wrists are designed to be straight most of the time. Place the paper to the student’s left and tilt it so the top of the page is tilted to the right. Sit comfortably at a table or desk, and with a straight and relaxed wrist, pull a line down toward the writer’s elbow. If the posture and paper position are good the slant of downstrokes will be forward at about 5°. The exact slant of the letters is of little importance as long as it is consistent, and not so excessive that letters become squashed.
Practice writing downstrokes for a few minutes each day. The downstrokes can join with light, drifting upward strokes. The result should look like twigs that are stuck in the ground and blown by a wind from the northwest (tilting slightly to the right). Add a few letters or words to the daily practice.
Hooked wrists result from placement of paper directly in front of the writer. Left-handers cannot see what is happening on the paper because the hand is in the way unless the wrist is turned. Writing flows from mind to paper. Letters and words, even drawings are made before the eyes see them. Nevertheless, we want to see what we have put on the paper.
Pen hold is the same for both right and left-handers, except that left-handers may place the fingers a little higher on the shaft of the writing tool. The forefinger will be about one inch from the point of a pencil. The tripod hold is the most commonly accepted pen hold. It is efficient, as it allows the most freedom of movement. The forefinger is on top of the pen or pencil with the thumb and third finger below the forefinger to support the tool. 
If you, as teacher, are right-handed, it is helpful if you show your left-handed student how to sit and write. You say, “Oh no, I can’t.” Yes you can! No one is more right-handed than I, but I can sit, put the paper in proper position, hold a pencil, and try. The student may giggle or snicker at my wiggly, shaky lines. I just say, “Well, I am right-handed, so if your posture is good, and your paper is in place like this, your letters will look better than mine.” This demonstration is a benefit to the student, while it helps you to better understand the kid’s perspective.
Left-handers have a tendency to make marks from right-to-left. Sometimes this results in mirror writing. The writer can read it, but the reader cannot. Maybe no one dared correct Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote from right-to-left all his life. However, it’s best to redirect the writing so readers do not have to go to the bathroom mirror to read a message. Non-writing exercises help. It can be as simple as standing to point at any object on the left, and move the hand to the right; lower the hand and repeat. All the while the student is saying, “left-to-right, and left-to-right, and….” Do the same using the forefinger to trace patterns on a table; they can be just scribbled, wavy lines. Use the sequential downstrokes described above. Exercises should require no thought of how to form letters; it is all about flowing, directional movement.
Moving on to letters, “t” and “f” are ones to work with near the beginning of instruction. Both have crossbars that the left-hander tends to write from right-to-left. Start with a few joined downstrokes; then write “t” and “f”. Now, add “tie, tub, fine, fur.” With each word, let the crossbar move to the letter that follows and join to it. This is not only good practice for left-to-right directionality; it is the most efficient way for anyone to write “t” and “f”. With long words, one does not need to remember to go back and cross “t” in a word such as tintinnabulation, nor will the crossbar be misplaced. 
If the child is young and shows a strong preference for the left-hand, there are a lot of pre-writing exercises that may seem babyish to older kids, but are fun for little ones. Pretend to direct traffic from west-to-east. Make it fun by giving the child a flashlight in a darkened room so he or she can see the pattern of light. Make a paper airplane to hold or fly across a room from left-to-right; let it land down on the right. Scribble from left-to-right in finger-paint, rice, sand or chocolate pudding. With your finger, trace horizontal lines on a child’s back. Often children have great ideas for practice.
Always speak the action. Both parent or teacher, and child should do this to reinforce habits of correct movement. Verbal reinforcement is a major factor in learning to write, and for remediation. It is difficult to move from right-to-left if you are telling yourself “left-to-right.” The sooner a student internalizes the movements for letter formation, the sooner he or she will be writing automatically. The goal is to put messages onto paper that travel from mind to fingers without thought of how to form letters, or numerals. 
Right-handed teachers are often unnecessarily apprehensive about teaching left-handers. Teaching, learning or remediation is not insurmountable. In fact, with some forethought, it can be nearly as easy as right-handers teaching right-handers. N.J.B. 
Nan Jay Barchowsky is the owner of Swansbury, Inc.
POB 117, Aberdeen, MD 21001, USA, 410-272-0836 (Please see ad on this page.)