Learning how to write is one of the most important things a child will do when he or she begins school. That’s because writing offers a means for self-expression and reflecting on the work of others, but it’s also how knowledge and learning is measured in our society. Writing can be done on a computer or through dictation using speech-to-text technology, but it’s more common for children to learn how to write by hand. This happens between the ages of 4 and 5 and involves becoming familiar with the letters of the alphabet, mastering the pen strokes used to form letters, and practicing with holding the pen or pencil in a tripod grip.
It’s common for new writers to struggle with letter formation, spacing and posture in the beginning, but most are able to produce clear and legible text by the end of the second grade. However, there are some children who continue to struggle with the mechanics of handwriting beyond age 7 or 8. For these learners, writing is often slow and labored, and may cause high levels of stress, frustration, anxiety, and embarrassment at school.
3 Common handwriting problems
Handwriting requires highly developed fine motor skills, which is why it typically isn’t taught until children are age 4 or older. Keep in mind everyone’s handwriting is unique and no two children will write in exactly the same way.
- Problems with letter shapes
English letters are made up of balls and bats. In the beginning, it takes a lot of coordination to form them and you may see different sized letters, as well as some confusion between similarly shaped letters, such as lowercase a, e and o. Note that lowercase letters are generally harder to write than capitals because they are smaller and they contain more rounded edges and curves.
This is one reason why people who struggle with handwriting sometimes prefer to write in all capital letters. The more a child practices the movements of handwriting, the more they become automatic and he or she builds up muscle memory, strength and dexterity in the hands. You can expect letter shapes to become increasingly regular as a child progresses through his or her first year of learning and begins to write using a steady grip and fluent rhythm.
- Problems with spacing
English is written left to right and words are denoted by spaces between them. However, there are also spaces between letters! And some words are combinations of two words, like contractions for example, separated only by an apostrophe. Understanding how these different distances work and then being able to recreate them on paper can take some time.
Planning word space is also tricky. It’s quite common for words to run off a page in the writing of very young children who are not practiced at estimating how much space they need per letter and per word. In terms of producing text that follows along a straight line, this ability is somewhat contingent upon being able to write letters that are relatively the same size. You also need to know how a letter shape falls across the horizontal axis to get the vertical spacing correct. Parents and teachers can help by providing graph or lined paper with dashes that serve as a guide for letter height.
- Problems with grip and posture
Beginner writers need plenty of practice to get comfortable holding a pen or pencil using a tripod grip. This is the preferred finger positioning where the thumb, index and middle finger work together to hold the writing instrument securely. Young children may first begin to develop this skill through drawing, and later by coloring inside the lines in coloring books.
In addition to how the pencil is held, there’s also figuring out the placement of the arm and elbow and learning how to apply the right amount of pressure so text is not too faint to read. Some young writers bear down on the pencil, which can cause hand cramps and broken pencil tips. Getting these children a writing utensil with a wider diameter, such as a chunky pencil or marker, sometimes helps, or a rubber grip to help the instrument to become thicker and prevent the hand from slipping if palms become sweaty.
TOP TIP: Is your child a lefty? Many parents note that handwriting skills can take longer to develop in children who are left-handed. Because English is a right to left language lefties may end up dragging their hand or sleeve along and can sometimes smudge the ink.
Moreover, most school desks are built for righties so it’s important that a child who is left-handed gains access to the correct classroom accommodations. Keep in mind there is no perfect position for handwriting– every child needs to find something that’s comfortable and works for them.
Additional things you may see
Mixing capitals and lowercase
It’s hard enough to learn one group of letters but in the English alphabet learners have to study two sets, capital and lowercase - which are sometimes entirely different shapes! Dealing with letter formation, spacing, posture and spelling all at the same time can be cognitively and physically exhausting for a child, so you may see slips in usage of capitals which can appear when the lowercase letters can’t be recalled or are too hard to write. It can also just happen because the child is tired.
There are two steps to writing a letter correctly. You need to understand the shapes it’s made of and how they are oriented. It’s especially common for letters like b and d or p and q to be reversed in younger learners (learn how to address reversals that continue to occur past the 2nd grade), because they are mirror images of each other. Having a strategy in place to deal with an error which is repeated will help. For example, if a child has consistent difficulty remembering how to shape the letter b, each time they come to write it, they may have to remember “first the bat, then the ball” which is to say, first make the downward stroke representing the bat, followed by the round ball.
Misuse of punctuation
You may see no punctuation, extra punctuation, or even unusual punctuation as young writers are experimenting. This is something that you shouldn’t worry about as conforming to punctuation norms will develop as reading skills progress and learners gain more exposure to correct usage.
Beginner writers are learning to break words down into their component sounds and then pair those sounds with the correct letter(s) from the alphabet. This is challenging enough in itself, let alone accounting for all of the strange spellings in English words. Once the basic process of encoding has been mastered, a child will gain a greater capacity to refine spelling and account for exceptions to the rule.
Mixing cursive and print
In contexts in which a child is still instructed in cursive writing, you may see a mixture of cursive and print appear, particularly when new letter shapes are difficult to form or hard to recall.
When handwriting problems persist
Handwriting problems that persist beyond the 2nd grade are often a sign that a child is struggling with a motor skills difficulty, such as dyspraxia, or a learning difference like dysgraphia, dyslexia or ADD/ADHD. Dyspraxia and dysgraphia can make it difficult - and sometimes even painful - to write by hand.
ADHD can cause fast handwriting that is quite messy. Dyslexic students can be distracted by anxiety over spelling and unable to attend to presentation aspects of their work. Problems with handwriting can interrupt note-taking and cause a student to fall behind in class.
Poor handwriting can also result in lower grades on assessment measures, depending on a teacher’s approach to marking, and over time, these issues may lead to a child developing a negative attitude toward school and learning.
But handwriting is still central to most school curriculums, particularly in lower grades. That’s why it’s important to identify problems with handwriting early on, so they can be addressed before they impact on a child’s confidence and self-esteem. With the right combination of strategies, therapies and accommodations, every child can achieve his or her full potential as a writer.
Handwriting problems caused by dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyslexia and ADD/ADHD
Dyspraxia. Learners with dyspraxia often struggle with fine motor skills. This may make holding a pen or pencil painful, frustrating and even impossible. Additionally, the discomfort and anxiety caused by handwriting can make it hard for a child to concentrate on the ideas, vocabulary or structure of his or her piece of writing. There may also be issues with organization and the planning of ideas.
Dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific learning difference that interrupts an individual’s ability to break words down into their component sounds, which can impact on decoding abilities in reading and encoding (also known as spelling) in writing. Spelling skills may be inconsistent and a child can spell a word correctly one day and not the next. This can give rise to insecurities and avoidance of writing, which means handwriting skills become an afterthought and work can be messy with plenty of corrections and erasure marks. It’s also quite common for dyslexia and dyspraxia or dyslexia and dysgraphia to co-present.
ADD/ADHD. Attention difficulties can impact on a child’s handwriting skills, particularly when there is hyperactivity present. A child may be racing to get his or her ideas on paper and the hand may not be able to keep up with the mind. This can result in impulsively written text with messy, malformed letters and plenty of spelling mistakes. Learn more about recognizing ADD and ADHD in the classroom.
Dysgraphia. When a child struggles with writing and does not have any other physical or mental impairment, he or she may be diagnosed with dysgraphia. This can describe a wide range of symptoms from not being able to form letters to producing ungrammatical text that does not match the individual’s oral communication skills. Learn more about dysgraphia.
It’s also worth noting that visual impairment can impact on handwriting, as letter shapes are harder to get right when you have difficulty seeing them. Visual processing disorders can also cause poor handwriting because they make copying letter shapes, understanding orientation, and dealing with letter and word spacing challenging.
What writing is all about
When children are first learning how to write there may be a lot of focus on letter formation and neatness to teach students about correct usage, but this guidance often becomes part of the marking criteria when a child reaches the third grade. The tragedy for learners who continue to struggle with poor penmanship is that handwriting is a somewhat superficial aspect of writing. Elementary/primary school is one of the only contexts in which it really counts.
Most older learners and adults prefer to type their written work, particularly when it comes to school essays, emails, and business reports. Moreover, having messy handwriting is a somewhat acceptable quirk for adults.
That’s because what really counts when it comes to writing is the range of vocabulary used, the meaning behind the words, how language comes together to express ideas, the complexity of the thinking and the structure and organization of the piece, not how beautiful its script is.
Of course having legible writing is important so the writer and others can understand what’s been written, but it’s not always possible for every individual to achieve this. Remember too there were plenty of creative people and geniuses who had notoriously poor handwriting, from Beethoven to Freud and even Picasso!
How to help
When problems with handwriting skills prevent a child from developing as a writer, it’s important for parents and/or teachers to intervene and provide targeted coaching, therapy, or potentially an alternative method for written production. It is particularly tragic when a very bright learner struggles to get their thoughts down on paper, but excels in oral reports. If grades and performance do not reflect intellectual ability it can cause a child to think poorly of him or herself –even believing he or she is a bad writer.
That’s why a common accommodation for students who struggle to write by hand is to introduce a keyboard and provide instruction in touch-typing, so learners can automatize the muscle movements used in typing – just like they would do in handwriting - and let the ideas flow freely through their fingertips and onto the screen.
A computer alleviates difficulties with letter formation. It takes away the stigma of having messy handwriting, crossing out text, or turning in assignments covered in erasure marks. There is no need to stay within the margins, as formatting can be applied automatically, and additionally, students with learning difficulties that cause spelling challenges gain access to a spell-checker.
Students who struggle with handwriting may always do so, but touch-typing can become automatic, making the writing process itself stress free. Learn more about how touch-typing can help dyslexic students with spelling.
Touch-type Read and Spell
Touch-type Read and Spell provides a structured and supportive program to teach typing to children and adults who struggle with motor skills and/or learning differences. The course is self-study and self-paced meaning every learner goes at a speed that is right for him or her.
Emphasis is on accuracy so there is no embarrassment for a learner with dyspraxia who needs to take it slowly. Moreover, key introduction is achieved through a program of English phonics, which helps learners encode real words as a series of key-strokes from the very beginning.
Multi-sensory learning combines audio and visual input with movement. Learners see the words, hear them and type them, which reinforces learning and boosts reading skills too. Achieving success from the very beginning of the course boosts self-esteem and confidence as a learner.
TTRS has been helping learners with special needs for 25 years and has won numerous awards, including the Educational Resources Award for Best Special Needs Product in 2017, with a nomination for the same award in 2018.