Handwriting is a frequent cause of frustration for elementary-aged children and their parents. Neat handwriting is important for legibility of compositions, credit for correct spelling, and accuracy in math. Following are some suggestions for helping your child to produce neat written work and express what he knows and can do while avoiding fatigue and frustration.
Pay attention to how your child is forming each letter. He should begin letters in the appropriate spot (most letters start near the midline, while some are formed starting at or just below the top line), moves his pencil in the right direction (most often counter-clockwise for round letters), and lifts his pencil only when appropriate. Some phonics programs used in elementary school prescribe specific handwriting rules, and some call for loss of points on spelling assessments if letters are not formed properly. Familiarize yourself with the specific program used by your child’s teacher and with her expectations.
Ensuring proper letter height is important to avoid confusion of visually similar letters such as ‘I’ and ‘l’, and upper case with lower case letters such as c/C, o/O, s/S, v/V, and w/W. Many experts have warned against allowing students to write letters too large in general, as they are “drawing” more than they are “writing” and the additional time spent to draw the letter can sidetrack spelling efforts. If your child struggles with appropriate letter height or size, various specialty papers are available as guides. There are many types, including those with dotted midlines or three-color lines, some with raised lines for a tactile cue, and on-line printables. You can also create your own writing paper in a word document, with broken midpoint lines. This allows you to adjust the size of the lines. This way, you can fade the use of the midpoint guides, as well as gradually decrease the overall height of the writing space, to encourage grade-level handwriting and greater independence.
The formation of lower-case letters that extend to the top line or below the baseline poses a challenge for many children. If your young writer struggles with proper placement of b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y, try describing these as “tall” and “long” letters. Provide configurations, or boxes, for children to practice these words. This can also help children to remember spellings of high frequency words. For example, this configuration can be used to write girl, part, pink, or yard.
Pay special attention to spaces between words and letters. Some teachers ask young children to place a finger between each word to ensure proper spacing. I like to use a small craft stick, as the child can still maintain appropriate handwriting posture. For little ones who are learning to write their names, I use a fine tip permanent marker to provide an example right on the colored craft stick. The stick doubles as a straightedge for underlining special words or drawing line segments in math exercises. It can also be used as a tracking tool while reading, as the child points to each word with the stick, or places it below a line of text and then return sweeps to the next line.
Posture is vital during writing activities, as bad habits can result in fatigue and illegible writing. Encourage your child to sit straight, with feet flat on the floor. If his feet don’t reach the floor, provide a stool, box, or other surface for comfortable sitting. If your child is really too tired of sitting all day, have him lie on his belly. The pressure on his elbows used to support his upper body will stabilize his forearms, developing appropriate arm and hand movements. At a table or desk, the writer’s elbow should be on the table and the free hand should hold the paper in place. For manuscript writing, it is suggested that right-handed students keep their paper straight with the edge of the table while left-handed writers will angle their paper slightly.
The pencil should be gripped near the tip. If young fingers lack the strength or dexterity for proper tri-pod pencil grasp, you can get special pencils grip at many teaching stores or office supply stores. You can also try putting tape or Velcro™ around a mechanical pencil to build up a fatter grip with texture. Triangular pencils are available as well. If your child holds his pencil too far from the tip, give him short mechanical pencils or get the little pencils used at golf courses, bowling alleys, and lottery counters. If your child places his middle finger on top of the pencil instead of underneath, have him hold a small object (such as a quarter) in the palm of his hand while practicing writing. This will force him to use the fourth and fifth fingers to hold the object. To develop greater strength and fine motor skills, ask your child to pick up several small objects with just one hand, then set them down or stack them. You can use small toys, paper clips, chips, or for more interest use chocolate chips or marshmallows that double as a reward.
Writers who press too hard on their pencils tend to experience fatigue quickly. To correct this problem, provide a mechanical pencil with thin lead, or place a towel or several sheets of paper towels underneath paper. In order to avoid breaking the lead or poking holes in the paper, the pressure must be decreased. This takes practice, and should only be done with activities of interest that are not cognitively demanding, to avoid frustration and distraction.
Finally, remember that activities that develop skills must be relevant to the child, so use fun journals to record ideas or drawings, write notes to your child and expect a response, find a snail-mail pen pal, or write letters to relatives. Help your child write a letter to a favorite author, the President of the United States, or a company that produces a favorite snack or toy. Your child may receive responses or free products, and it’s always fun to get real mail. Provide engaging writing materials, such as multi-colored pens or pencils, craft papers, or a slant board that is really just a decorative three-inch binder. As the physical demand of writing becomes second nature, children can express their ideas and demonstrate their knowledge unencumbered.