So often, we as occupational therapists hear comments from parents such as, “My son’s handwriting is terrible but I don’t know how to help him.” Or, “My daughter’s teacher is concerned that she can’t write her name but isn’t sure how to help.”
Handwriting is an essential skill for children to learn and master. Even in these days of ever-increasing technology in the classroom, children spend a large percentage of their day on paper and pencil tasks. Handwriting practice also helps to refine motor skills in general, by increasing finger and hand strength, eye-hand coordination and finger dexterity. When learning to write and draw is difficult, children often avoid these activities instead of receiving the additional instruction needed. Extensive research has linked poor handwriting to decreased academic success, reading ability, and self-esteem in young children. As children fall farther behind with writing in grade school, the extra effort expended on forming letters hinders their ability to fluidly formulate their thoughts and ideas on paper.
The good news is that with proper, targeted intervention, almost all children can become successful writers!
How Should Handwriting Be Taught?
Handwriting is most easily learned when instruction begins at each individual child’s developmental level. That means that if your child cannot yet draw such pre-writing strokes as a circle or cross, having her attempt to trace the lowercase letters in her name—just because that is the classroom curriculum—will be ineffective and frustrating for all involved.
Children should first master the requisite pre-writing skills necessary to form letters (i.e., the ability to copy horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines as well as form a cross and circle). Strong handwriting skills also require certain foundational skills: core and upper body strength, development of hand arches, finger dexterity, in-hand manipulation skills, and hand-eye coordination. (See our next blog for more information regarding these foundational skills and ideas for strengthening them.) Children should also be able to recognize most letters before learning to write them, otherwise they are simply learning to copy shapes.
Once pre-writing strokes and most of the foundational skills are sufficient, handwriting is best taught in a developmental sequence, from those letters easiest to form to the hardest. This means teaching letters with straight lines such as L, F, and E before those with curves or diagonals (i.e., A, X, J). It also means teaching uppercase letters first, which are all the same size, easier to form, and usually recognized by children first. Lowercase letters, which tend to be harder to form and vary in size, can be very confusing to new writers. The Handwriting Without Tears® (HWT) handwriting program, developed by an occupational therapist, follows this developmental sequence and is used by almost all occupational therapists and some school districts. Handwriting Without Tears® also teaches letters by grouping together those formed the same way (for example, lowercase letters c, o, a, d, g, and q all start by making the letter c). Children first practice tracing the letters before learning to copy them independently. However, tracing dotted lines is not recommended, as some children have difficulty visualizing the letter the dots are forming (they do not see the forest for the trees). For example, some children with poor visual processing skills who are able to write letters independently will trace dotted lined forming those same letters incorrectly and inaccurately. Instead, children can trace over pencil or gray marker with colored marker or use HWT workbooks, which provide solid gray lines to trace. When beginning to form letters on their own, HWT workbooks have the children copy each letter in a rectangular box containing a dot where the letter should start. This helps children not only remember where to start each letter but also gives them a visual space in which to form the letter without introducing lines. Lined paper is best introduced when the child is ready to learn lowercase letters, as they are placed differently on the line.
Handwriting is also best taught using a multi-sensory approach. For example, children can form letters with popsicle sticks, dry pasta, dot markers, Play-Doh, and other materials such as HWT Wood Pieces. These activities help reinforce the shape of each letter and the child’s visual memory of that letter. They can practice forming letters correctly by “writing” them in shaving cream, pudding, shallow sand, or finger paint using their index fingers. You can model how to form the letter on a dry erase board or chalkboard and then have your child trace over the letter with her finger or a small piece of sponge to erase the letter. You can take turns with your child forming letters in the air, with a flashlight on a wall, on each other’s backs or the backs of your hands and then guessing what letter was drawn.
Unfortunately, this is not how handwriting is typically taught in a classroom setting where teachers are often using outdated material and teach to a large number of children at one time. In addition, there is a lack of professional development in the area of handwriting and although educators can spot “illegible handwriting,” they very often lack the knowledge of where the breakdown is occurring and what underlying deficiencies may be contributing to handwriting issues.
When children display poor handwriting, the problem tends to go beyond handwriting itself. This is why occupational therapists look at much more than the finished handwriting product when diagnosing handwriting difficulties. We look at not only how the letters look on the page, but also how the child forms the letters. Handwriting is neater and faster when all letters are formed top to bottom. Grasp on the writing instrument is also very important. Inefficient grasps (i.e. holding the pencil with the entire hand, with all five fingers, or too tightly) make accuracy difficult and often fatigue the muscles in the hands and fingers. Strengthening those muscles as well as increasing finger dexterity often leads to improved handwriting. For stability, children should rest their forearm, wrist, and the pinkie side of their hand on the tabletop by the age of four or five. Your child should also be sitting with good posture when writing. If your child holds his head very close to the table, this can be a sign of visual concerns or core weakness (the child lacks the trunk strength to hold himself up against gravity while sitting). Holding his head in his hands is another sign of core weakness and prevents your child from using his “helper hand” to hold the paper still. Another sign that handwriting is not the only area of concern is if your child has difficulties with other visual motor skills such as cutting, stringing beads, or completing puzzles.
The following developmental chart explains what your child should be able to do at a particular age. If you find your child struggling with handwriting or pre-handwriting skills, an occupational therapist can help!
Performance task / Age level
Scribbles on paper with whole arm movements / 12-18 months
Imitates vertical line / 18-24 months
Imitates circular scribble / 20-24 months
Imitates horizontal line and cross / 24-30 months
Copies circle / 2.5-3.0 years
Traces line; copies a cross / 3.5-4.0 years
Copies diagonal lines, square, and many uppercase letters and numbers. Colors within lines. Prints name. Stabilizes paper with helper hand. / 4-5 years
Copies a triangle / 5 years
Copies and then writes most uppercase and lowercase letters. / 5-6 years
Copies a diamond / 6 years
Our next blog will contain more information about the foundational skills required for strong handwriting as well as ideas to help your child strengthen these skills. Coming soon…