Southpaw students need helping hand from teachers and parents

September 03, 1991|By Colin McEnroe | Colin McEnroe,The Hartford Courant

HEY, YOU, RIGHTY! That's right, northpaw, we're talking to you! C'mere, Mr. Dominant Dextral Digits.

Try a little home experiment. Get a ruler and a pencil. Got 'em? OK, brace the ruler on a piece of paper with your right hand. Take the pencil in your left hand. Draw a line 4 5/8 inches long.

What's the matter? Having a little problem?

That's the way it is for left-handed kids, too. So if your child is left-handed and you are not, you ought to think about sending him or her back to school with a left-handed ruler.

That's right. They make rulers where the numbers start at the right, but chances are very, very, very slim that your child's grade school will have one anywhere in the building or that your child's grade-school teacher even will know such a product exists.

If you are sending a left-handed child back to grade school, there are some things you should know. The first of these is that your child's teacher has probably never had any training -- beyond word-of-mouth among fellow teachers -- about teaching lefties.

"Although I think that, across the board, there is more FTC information on learning styles," most teachers don't get a lot of nitty-gritty information on how to teach the southpaw, says Suzan Ireland, managing editor of Lefthander Magazine, published in Topeka, Kan.

If you are left-handed, "you just have to muddle your way through it," she says.

There are many misconceptions floating around. A lot of teachers (even left-handed ones) believe, for example, that lefties should be discouraged from "hooking" when they learn to write.

Hooking (scientific name: "inverting") is the practice of flexing the wrist when gripping a pen, so that the hand curls around it from the top. A small percentage of right-handers hook when they write, too. A lot of people think left-handers hook to avoid smudging their writing, but if that were true, it would make sense that a greater portion of right-handed Israelis, writing Hebrew from right to left, would hook, too. But they don't.

In fact, hooking seems to be a function of brain organization, not a learned habit. Jerre Levy, a professor of bio-psychology at the University of Chicago and one of the pioneer researchers in hand posture in writing, says adults "should allow the child to develop according to his natural course."

She compares the practice of discouraging hooking to the old practice of forcing southpaw children to switch handedness, which is now universally regarded as barbaric.

One thing seems clear. If a lefty kid hooks, he should tilt his paper to the left. If he doesn't, he should tilt to the right.

How many people are left-handed? Modern estimates are that between 10 percent and 15 percent of the population is left-handed -- probably closer to 15 percent among men and 10 percent among women.

What causes left-handedness? Not anyone thing. Southpaw Bob may have inherited it from his father. Southpaw Jane may not have any left-handed blood relatives, even going back several generations. The reasons for her left-handedness probably have nothing to do with genetics and may have to do with -- to pick one persistent line of research -- the way she was carried during pregnancy or something that occurred during birth itself.

Which brings us to the shocker. Researchers in laterality now believe that there is not just one kind of left-hander. So all the stuff you have heard about lefties being more quirky or more creative is probably rubbish, because there are several different types of lefties.

"If a person is right-handed, you can say some things with 90 percent confidence about his brain organization," says Levy, who does not even like the term "left-handed." If someone is not right-handed, she says, you would have to give her "lots and lots of tests over many days" to find out what kind of non-right-hander she is. For example, some left-handers seem to use the right side of their brains as the main control of speech. Some use the left. Nobody really knows why. "The story scientifically is still very confused and very complicated," says Levy.

One reason the research has not filtered down to teachers and others, she says, is that the field is still too uncertain and raw for its conclusions to be trustworthy. "If the general public were to be thrown into the ocean of this research, they would be blinded by the paradoxes we don't understand," she says.

Here is some practical advice for parents of lefties:

* Make sure the teacher knows your child is left-handed.

Children are self-conscious. Some lefty kids are embarrassed to ask for left-handed scissors, which many schools have. If they can be quietly provided, good. Some lefty kids already have learned to cut with right-handed scissors by the time they hit school. If that's what they want to do, it's OK.

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