Why do some students struggle to copy from the board?

You know some children struggle to copy neatly and accurately from the board, but why?

Well aside from their fine motor control there are a number of contributing factors, one of which is the vestibular system.

Things to be aware of:

The vestibular system gives us our sense of balance, co-ordination and movement. The vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear and are activated every time we move or change our head position. 

When children copy from the board their heads move up and down frequently. Among other things, the vestibular system influences coordinating eye movement. Some pupils have inaccurate vestibular processing.

Those with poor working memory will have to look up and down more frequently than others. Working memory is the system we have for holding information in mind for a short time while we use it to solve problems or make decisions. 

Things to do:

  • Identify the children in your class who find it more difficult.
  • Ask your class how they find copying from the board. 
  • Listen and note down individuals who say they find it challenging and how they describe the experience.
  • Give them a paragraph to copy from the board and give yourself space to be present and observe for yourself. Make notes. 
  • Experiment with using different colours for sections of text (and background) to help pupils track where they’ve got to. Remember to explain WHY you’ve used colour in this way and ASK them what is helpful and what is not. 
  • Children who have noticeable difficulty can be provided with a paper version to copy from so there is less head movement required.

Over time and with encouragement they can reflect about how much information they are able to hold in working memory for copying. They can also be taught strategies such as:

  • repeating sections aloud to support remembering
  • crossing out information as they go to help keep track
  • reading back frequently to spot omissions (including whole line omissions!)
  • explaining what they’ve copied in their own words to decide if they understand the content. 
  • (asking questions if they don’t)

Developing self-awareness, understanding and practical strategies empowers individuals.

Becoming Better – Where To Start


Listening to Michelle Obama begin to narrate her autobiography ‘Becoming’, I found myself wandering into the world of her childhood. The calm, soothing tone of her voice and the deliciously detailed descriptions made me feel like I’d drifted through a time portal.

She begins by introducing her family, the first home she remembers and… the story of how she began learning piano at about the age of four. My ears pricked up! Because playing the piano is a fine motor skill like handwriting. A skill that we automate by practising just like a pianist. And I’m always listening out for comparable examples to share to help explain development and improvement to others.

Once these skills are automated we free up working memory to focus on other creative details that can result in beautifully emotive music or inspiring writing.

Michelle describes that early experience of learning thoroughly and carefully. It’s a fascinating and revealing account of the interactions with Great Aunt Robbie (her teacher), her emotions, motivation, environment and snatched opportunities (aside from the physical skill development).

We often take our movement (motor) skills for granted don’t you think? Important activities that give us independence, help us move to safety and communicate effectively – things like walking, driving, swimming … and writing. Even talking requires mastering control of facial muscles and the tongue.

The small actions we took, practised and repeated which meant we mastered those activities are long forgotten (take ‘mastered’ as meaning ‘became able to do reasonably well without conscious awareness’).

We are generally too busy and distracted with the demands of today to take time to pause and reflect. UNLESS there is a reason to. Like wanting to develop a new skill, better an existing one or relearning a lost one. Or finding we need or want to teach someone else.

Then it’s time to apply conscious thought and effort.


The first stage in developing, improving or changing anything, is to slow down and start to pay attention. Notice what’s happening right now. Make the unconscious conscious. Direct your Reticular Activating System to what YOU have decided is a priority. You are in control of your mind. It’s there to serve you but sometimes it needs direction and boundaries.

If you haven’t heard of the RAS, it’s a network of neurons located in the brain stem. It acts like a nightclub bouncer filtering out the riff-raff; it surveys and scans the mass of information that’s trying to get through the doors of your mind… deciding what gets in, what needs to join the back of the queue, and what needs to go and change out of trainers or get a better fake ID. It prioritises for you without you realising.

The good news is the RAS is your employee, taking care of things when you’re otherwise occupied. You’d be overwhelmed without it as all that information would stampede in and random victims would be crushed or thrown aside and lost. Be grateful for your RAS but remember YOU are the boss and YOU can override it. Final decisions are yours.

So if you want to develop a skill, change a habit or help someone else to, don’t rush then give up because you think it’s not working or you’ve failed. Start by deliberately slowing down and noticing what’s going on. Then you can think about becoming better and prioritise step by step actions that will move you in the right direction.

If you struggle to slow down just listen to Michelle tell her story. It’s mesmerising.

The Tactile System

The tactile system is our sense of touch.

What is the tactile system?

Following on from the previous article on sensory processing , here’s some further insight into the tactile system – our sense of touch. Among many other things it plays an essential role in developing our ability to write by hand.

As you read, you might find it interesting to consider yourself and people you know. Is touch something reassuring and welcome, or an irritant and intrusion?

The tactile system adapts in response to our perception and experiences, which helps us stay safe and develop the skills we need to thrive.

There are actually two parts : the discriminative and the protective.

The Discriminative System

This lets us know what we are touching and where we are touching it. As a result our brains receive important feedback which is key to developing motor skills (including fine motor skills like writing).

Handwriting is a conscious, cognitive task we develop gradually through experience. Tactile recognition helps us hold and adjust to the type of pen we are using and learn to apply appropriate pressure. Accurate visual perception is also necessary to help us control the size, shape and positioning of letters.

Research shows that direct instruction is the most effective way to improve handwriting. Good teaching feeds into the discriminative system.

The Protective System

This helps keep us safe, allowing us to give attention to developing skills like writing that move us forward.

Think about something as simple as a fly landing on your arm. The sensation triggers a reaction to remove the threat of the fly and the germs it might transfer. Instinctively you make a sudden movement to make the fly go away. You will probably then find yourself ducking and swiping as it refuses to leave you alone! This is the protective system working.

It warns us when we are in contact with something negative or potentially dangerous, triggering a fight, flight, fright or freeze response. The whole mind and body is involved in an unconscious reaction. Responses are either reflex and defensive or designed to calm and soothe.

Some people are tactile defensive.

Their protective system reacts strongly to touch sensations. Certain fabrics and garment labels may irritate them. They may also dislike certain foods because of the texture.

Some will flinch in response to a friendly pat, or go rigid and pull back from what is intended as an affectionate hug. This might come across as rejection or being unemotional, and yet it’s actually a symptom of the tactile system doing its job. Understanding, together with careful, gradual exposure can help retrain the brain and reduce negative reactions.

For some great activities to do with children that develop tactile processing have a look at https://theinspiredtreehouse.com/sensory-processing-tactile-system/

Sensory Processing

A few minutes a day over 20 months saw this transformation.

Have you ever heard of it?

I first learned about it when my son (aged 2) was identified as having developmental dyspraxia. That was 20 years ago now. Naturally I was keen to learn and understand more so that I could support him in acquiring the many skills he would need; those that we too often take for granted.

Sensory Processing is all about the way we register and perceive sensory information through different channels.

The brain organises sensations received, then responds with movements and behaviours that allow us to learn and interact usefully with people, with tasks and with our environment.

Early on we are taught the general descriptors for our senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) but there are 3 other terms that are less familiar: tactileproprioception and vestibular.

I will develop these more in separate articles (and their importance in enabling us to write by hand) but for now here’s a simple overview:

  • Tactile

This is our sense of touch. Sensations come from receptors in the skin all over our bodies. Tactile input is important to us emotionally (think about a hug) but it is also very specific, giving lots of detailed information about the body which allows us to respond with great precision and dexterity. Writing involves many touch sensations.

  • Proprioception

This refers to the sense of body position. Sensations from muscles and joints give us information about our body parts and how they are moving. This helps us guide our arm and leg movements without constantly having to look at what we are doing. Writing, driving and touch typing are examples of activities which require good proprioception.

  • Vestibular

This is our sense of balance, coordination and movement. Receptors are located in the inner ear and activate every time we move or change our head position. It affects coordinating both sides of the body, and the movement of our eyes. This helps us to control our posture and balance, and know where we are in space. When writing, our vestibular sense helps us copy information from another source to our page.

Interesting isn’t it? The good news is, all that I learned in order to support my son, helped the pupils in my classes too; it gave me the understanding and skills to help hundreds of people improve their handwriting over the years. For that I am extremely grateful.

It now gives me great pleasure to share my experience, skills and passion to support teachers and school staff as well as students and others themselves.

Nicky Parr , Managing Director Better Handwritten Ltd

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