Handwriting can be a struggle for many children, especially those with developmental differences or fine motor issues. However, there are many things that a parent or educator can do to help children excel in the development of their handwriting.
Below you’ll find a list of some of the best practices to help a child struggling with handwriting. Using these techniques, along with a strong dose of patience, can help kids catch up to their peers in fine motor skills in no time.
1. Teach Children to Hold a Writing Implement Properly
Many handwriting difficulties arise in children because they do not learn how to hold a writing implement correctly. This causes children to develop bad habits early on that are difficult to correct as they grow older, and these incorrect writing grasps become ingrained. Children can learn to start properly holding a pencil around three years old, though fine motor skills vary greatly from child to child as they develop. (Source: Today’s Parent)
Here are some ways to help children learn how to hold a pencil in a proper grasp:
- Teach children to perfect a pincer grip on small objects, which can help them hold a pencil or pen in the correct position. If they start out having difficulty picking up objects with their bare hands, try training them on child-safe tweezers.
- Divide long crayons into smaller sections for toddlers (one inch). This can help them develop a proper grip early rather than learning to place their entire fist around a crayon to gain more motor control.
Monitoring how your child holds their writing implement early on can help save weeks or months of re-training into a proper positioning of the hand later. Developing a pincer or tripod grasp earlier can help them have a better grasp on the pencil.
2. Make Sure Children Have Good Handwriting Tools
For children to have fun while they learn to write, they need to have the right tools. There are several teaching tools and accessories for handwriting that can help make the process more enjoyable and informative.
Here are a few tools that can help children who are struggling with their handwriting:
- A variety of writing tools: Children need to have access to many different writing utensils, not just pencils. Since each child develops fine motor skills at their own pace, it’s important to provide easier drawing implements, such as crayons or fat non-toxic markers, as well as finer utensils such as pens and pencils.
- Handwriting worksheets: Handwriting worksheets can help teach children letter formation and aid them in writing drills by giving them a guide to trace. Preschool children should have at least some familiarity with freewriting consistently before introducing a formalised writing drill like a worksheet.
- Raised line paper: Some children may have difficulty staying within the boundaries of lines on handwriting paper based on visual cues alone. For children who are more attuned to tactile sensations, raised lines on handwriting paper serve as a tactile guide that helps keep the child’s hand between the lines while they work on their handwriting.
- Stickers/gold stars: Positive reinforcement is crucial for helping struggling children feel good about improving their handwriting. Marking worksheets with holographic stickers, gold stars, or other reward imagery can help keep lessons light and children encouraged about their progress.
Providing the right tools is an important part of giving children a strong foundation in handwriting.
3. Start Children Off on the Right Paper
Lined paper is a much better choice to help children struggling with handwriting than blank white paper, making it much more difficult for struggling children to judge proportions and keep their handwriting straight across the page.
Using colored paper can also help catch the eye of children who have shorter attention spans and help keep them more engaged with the handwriting practice at hand. When teaching young children or children struggling with handwriting, increasing the paper’s size can also encourage children to make their lettering bigger and more legible.
Paper designed with multicolored zones can help children develop a better understanding of where letters should sit in relation to each other. As children get better at drawing letters within the properly colored zone, this can indicate that they have developed enough fine motor function to move on to black and white-lined handwriting papers for more advanced practice. (Source: Teach Handwriting)
4. Keep Handwriting Practice Fun and Light
If you’re dealing with a child who is already struggling with handwriting, you won’t get very far by making lessons harder, more repetitive, or more tedious. There isn’t any point in punishing a child’s short attention span—even neurotypical children cannot focus on a task for very long. Those with learning differences such as autism and ADHD can have even more difficulty taking in information for long periods.
When you teach a child handwriting, it’s vital to keep practice positive and to keep the child in a good mood throughout the session.
Here are some ways to make handwriting practice more fun:
- Provide plenty of short breaks. Taking short breaks of 3-5 minutes between individual handwriting lessons to play a short game, stretch, or even grab a tiny snack can help keep children from losing interest during a lesson.
- Keep handwriting practice sessions short. For small children, handwriting practice sessions should last no longer than thirty minutes at the longest. Children who have difficulty sitting still for half an hour might benefit from having a thirty-minute practice session broken up by a five-minute break.
- Use visual cues for good examples. It’s a good idea to get children into the habit of circling their best handwriting example to analyse their writing and learn to recognise when handwriting is good and when it isn’t. Marking their best example with a gold star or other sparkly sticker can be an additional visual cue.
- Don’t push new concepts too quickly. Give children plenty of time to work with and absorb learning how to construct each letter before moving on to something new. If you move too fast, this can cause the child to regress or become discouraged.
Handwriting practice is already not that fun for many children, so it’s up to parents and educators to keep children as engaged as they can so that they get the full benefit of the lesson at hand.
5. Teach Children Not to Erase During Handwriting Practice
While erasers are incredibly useful for correcting mistakes, that usefulness can quickly turn into a crutch (and an annoyance) when teaching a child handwriting. They need to see their mistakes to learn to fix them appropriately.
Here are a few of the reasons why erasers are not the best idea when teaching handwriting practice:
- Erasers often destroy the paper that the child is handwriting on. Children either erase too hard or smudge their work. This can be visually discouraging to children during a handwriting session. It can also result in them spending more time trying to correct their mistakes than practicing their letters.
- Crossing out allows children to see their mistakes while acknowledging their mistakes. Leaving mistakes on a worksheet or paper can help children see their progress much better than if they spend half of their practice drills erasing them.
- Children are trained out of pencils early in school. Teaching children to rely on erasers does them a disservice later in their academic careers when they are typically forced to upgrade to both ink pen and cursive. It’s better to teach children proper letter formation and how to put a line through their mistakes as they’d have to do with a pen since most students do not use erasable ink.
Learning to be dependent on erasers can reinforce a perfectionist attitude in children that can cause them to be too critical of their work. This is especially an issue in children with autism or ADHD, many of whom are driven to have things “just right” to progress. Learning as children to accept, love, and learn from their mistakes helps set them up for success in adulthood.
6. Games and Puzzles Can Also Help Children with Handwriting
Often, children that struggle with handwriting have weaker fine motor skills. This is especially significant in neurodivergent children, where poor motor function can point towards developmental issues such as dyspraxia.
While dyspraxia associated with autism and ADHD is, unfortunately, a lifelong condition that can only be mitigated rather than cured, children with less severe fine motor differences can often improve their fine motor function through regular exercises that help develop their hand-eye coordination, such as puzzles and games.
Here are some ways that children can be encouraged to develop their fine motor function in a way that is fun and less boring than handwriting practice (Source: Your Therapy Source):
- Blowing bubbles with a wand
- Drawing designs in the mud or sand with a stick
- Putting together jigsaw puzzles
- Throwing bean bags in a game like cornhole
- Moving board game pieces around
- Playing simple card games
- Squeezing rubber rings
- Playing with Play-Doh, sensory slime, or silly putty
Any games or activities that involve a child using their hands to manipulate small objects can help them to develop the kind of fine motor control necessary to hold a pencil for handwriting properly.
7. Watch the Posture of Children While They are Handwriting
Some children may have the habit of hunching over their writing or writing at an extreme angle. These bad habits should be corrected early to prevent the child from giving themselves repetitive motion injuries. This can also prevent them from developing muscle strain, headaches, and hand cramps.
Ensure that children sit up straight over their desks—this means making sure that the desk they’re doing their handwriting on is at an appropriate height for the child’s size. The child’s feet should be flat on the floor, with their knees bent at an approximately 90 degree angle. Children should also be watched to make sure that they hold their pencil in a vertical position rather than slanting it by laying their hand across the page. This habit leads to a child smearing their writing, and it also causes strain in the hand and wrist.
- Children Should Get Plenty of Practice
When learning to handwrite, repetition is the name of the game. While children might find writing the same letters over and over again to be boring, this mechanical repetition is what helps train hand-eye coordination and leads to more legible handwriting as the child progresses and develops.
Children who may have difficulty with fine motor function or are struggling with handwriting may become resistant to practicing their handwriting. Therefore, it is important to make handwriting a fun activity for them to practice is more often.
Here are some ways that can help children practice writing letters, numbers and shapes multiple times:
- Rainbow letters: Encourage your child to draw letters, numbers and shapes with different colours. They can trace the letter or number over and over again.
- Letter School app: This is an app which makes practicing learning letters and numbers more fun. It provides a visual on how to draw the letters and numbers and then gets your child to do it. https://www.letterschool.org/
9. Introduce Writing to Your Child with Easier Tools
Starting children with pencils before giving them adequate time to master using easier tools such as crayons or markers can cause them to become discouraged when they have difficulty writing with more complicated writing implements. Both parents and educators need to be patient with children, especially those with neurological differences. It is essential to understand that it may take them longer to graduate to a traditional pencil than some other children, and that’s okay!
Here are some writing implements that can help children graduate to harder writing utensils more easily:
- Triangular crayons: Triangular crayons can be easier to grasp than rounded crayons and help preschoolers or special needs children develop a proper grip on a writing tool more quickly.
- Golf pencils: Golf pencils are shorter than traditional pencils and are often ridged, making them much easier for small children to get a good grip on.
- Jumbo colored pencils: Jumbo colored pencils can help children develop their grip while keeping them engaged through bright colors.
- Thick non-toxic markers: Washable markers are a good choice for children working on their handwriting and their ability to color inside the lines. Teaching children to use markers to color inside the line on coloring books and worksheets can also reinforce fine motor function for handwriting skills.
Making sure that children have plenty of time to practice with these easier writing tools before writing with a pencil can help avoid early handwriting problems and help prevent a child from regressing when they run into handwriting difficulties later on.
10. Pay Attention to Letter Proportions When Teaching Children Handwriting Skills
One of the aspects of handwriting that children don’t intrinsically understand that greatly affects the legibility of their writing is letter proportions. It is difficult to teach children the proper proportions of lowercase and capital letters without line guides, so teaching children handwriting on blank white paper can ultimately teach them bad habits.
Handwriting worksheets are an excellent option for helping children learn letter proportions. Many of these worksheets incorporate visual guides that help teach children how to set their letters’ proportions.
Having children warm up by drawing symmetrical shapes, such as making a line the same size as circles or a line of the same size as squares or cross marks, can help children learn how to reproduce the same marks consistently, resulting in more fine motor control in handwriting. For many children, fine hand-eye coordination is not an innate skill – it is a skill that must be taught through repetition.
11. Teaching Children to Trace Helps Their Handwriting
Another exercise that can help children learn to control a writing or drawing utensil is to teach them how to trace outside of traditional handwriting practice. This is also a way that handwriting exercises can be better customised to each child since tracing subjects can be based on the subjects the child likes best. For example, a child who likes unicorns might be encouraged to trace a series of unicorn line drawings on a lightbox.
Tracing on a lightbox can help drastically improve a child’s fine motor skills, and it can also encourage artistic skills. If you’re crafty, you can even make your own lightbox at home with a clear container and a string of lights!
12. Don’t Move to Handwriting Worksheets Too Early in Handwriting Practice
One mistake that educators and parents may make to help rush along a child’s development is pushing them into handwriting worksheets before they have had a chance to develop their more basic fine motor skills. While children might be eager to please in this regard, this can lead to children developing poor handwriting due to being pressed too far too quickly.
Instead, children should spend several years learning to write with simpler writing tools. Here are a few ways that children can be trained in starter materials before moving on to handwriting worksheets:
- Whiteboards: Whiteboards and dry erase markers can be a good choice for children to learn how to draw and write because they offer a large space for them to work with, and the erasable nature of the medium means that they don’t get too hung up on mistakes. To encourage children to use a whiteboard for handwriting practice, a few thin pieces of black tape can be stuck across the board’s surface to form guidelines for letter formation.
- Chalkboards: Chalkboards are also a good large space for younger children to practice their writing skills, and many chalkboards already come with guidelines to help smaller children with their letters. Chalkboards can also be equipped with multicolored chalk. Parents and educators can draw a dotted line of letters in white chalk on the child’s chalkboard to trace with colored chalk. This can show children how close their attempts match the desired result.
- Graph paper: For children that have a hard time with letter spacing or proportions, large rule graph paper can help them get a better grasp on repeating letters of the same size.
It’s wise to let children try a wide variety of different writing mediums and tools to find the ones they click with the best. It may take some experimentation to determine which tools work best for which child.
13. Teach Children to Space Their Letters
Along with teaching children how to proportion their letters correctly, it’s also important for parents and educations to teach children how to space their letters apart properly. In early handwriting practice, one way for children to do this is to learn to place one finger space between their letters.
As they grow older and their handwriting becomes smaller to account for standard lined paper, this space will also be reduced. But for elementary-aged children who are first learning to write, a finger space is a good guideline to teach.
14. Teach Children Their Letters by Structure, Not in Alphabetical Order
Many parents and educators may be tempted to teach children how to write their alphabet in alphabetical order since most children are taught to say and recognise their alphabet in alphabetical order. However, this does a disservice to children because the placement of letters in the alphabet has little practical purpose regarding how letters interact with each other on the page in handwriting.
Instead, it is better to teach children their letters by grouping together letters of a similar structure. Here are a few examples:
- Letters that include a “v” shape: v, w
- Letters that include straight lines: t, i, l
- Letters that are rounded: m, n
- Letters with a circle shape: q, o, p, b
Teaching children how to make letters of similar shape at the same time can help reinforce their knowledge of how to consistently create the shapes that form written language, and not just the letters themselves. It’s also important to get children away from the idea of letters always appearing in alphabetical order since this does not reflect how letters are presented in actual writing practice.
15. Use Letter-Based Games to Help Reinforce Learning Letter Shapes
Outside of handwriting practice, children need to have letter learning at the forefront of their education. This can help children continue to learn their letters even when they’re not actively practicing their handwriting.
Here are a few letter-based games that can help:
- Little Treasures Matching Letter Game
- Haptime Matching Letter Game
- Alphabet Bingo
- The Learning Journey Match-It Game
- Coogram Letters Matching Eggs
Not only can letter-based games reinforce a child’s knowledge of their letters for handwriting, but these types of games can also be used to break up more intensive handwriting practices such as worksheets.
16. Use Sensory Cues to Reinforce Memory for Struggling Kids
One thing that neurodivergent children share is that they can often become over-stimulated by sensory information. This means that teaching children handwriting in a classroom or space full of distracting noises, lights, smells, and social interactions can make it difficult to keep these kids on task. However, these children’s special connections with their environment on a sensory level can also help reinforce their handwriting practice sessions and other lessons.
Here are a few ways that educators and parents can help to incorporate sensory cues in learning exercises:
- Speak letters or words aloud as they are written. Having children read their letters aloud can also act as an auditory cue to reinforce both attention and memory.
- Use scented markers to complete handwriting exercises. These smells make handwriting more engaging, and olfactory cues have improved memory through scientific studies. Olfactory cues have even been shown to be more effective than visual cues in spurring memory. (Source: Memory Journal)
- Have children practice drawing letters in a sandbox or forming letters with silly putty. Some children have a greater connection to kinetic learning than auditory or visual learning, and incorporating sensory tools that encourage hands-on learning can help these kids stay engaged.
Incorporating a wide variety of sensory cues into a handwriting practice session makes it easier for children to remember the things they learn while practicing. These sensory cues can also make the lesson more fun for everybody involved.
17. Children Who Struggle with Handwriting Can Be Reinforced with Good Habits
Some children may not take to handwriting practice or drills as easily as others due to difficulties with attention or fine motor skills. These children need to receive the additional help they need to reach their full potential as students. Setting up children with a strong foundation in handwriting skills in preschool can lead to a child with much better handwriting in elementary school and beyond, preventing many scholastic problems down the road.