Learning to Write | Handwriting Problems in Kids

Child's hand drawing on white paper with pencil.

Incorrect Grip
There are several developmental stages that your child will go through before he or she learns how to hold a pen or pencil correctly. As a toddler, he or she will start off by holding it in a closed fist and most of his or her scribbling motion will come from the shoulder. As his or her arm and hand control improve, he or she will eventually start holding pens and pencils with his or her fingers, and most movement will come from the wrist. Most children have mastered the correct, tripod-style grip by the age of six.

However, as with most developmental stages, this varies from child to child. The tripod-style grip is considered most efficient in helping your child master how to write neatly and at a reasonable speed without his or her hand tiring easily. If your child is finding it difficult to master the tripod-style grip, this printable worksheet can help him or her learn the correct way to hold a pen or pencil. A pencil gripper can also be helpful.

Old fashioned slope sheets

Sizing and Spatial Concepts
Huge letters and gaps in individual letters are common spatial difficulties children face when learning to write. For example, your child might write the letter “p” as two parts — a line and a circle — and leave a space between the two parts. Additionally, his or her letters might vary in size, ranging from small to very large.

Slope sheets can help with keeping his or her letters consistent. Some sheets also have a third dotted line through the middle to help your child with sizing upper and lower case letters. Remind your child that all parts of a letter must touch, so there are no gaps. Practice makes perfect! Find time every day to have your child practice his or her letters but keep the exercises short and fun so he or she doesn’t get burned out or frustrated.

Little girl in glasses standing in front of white board with magnetic letters.

Letter or Number Reversals
Writing letters and numbers backwards isn’t something to be overly concerned about in younger kids — many children struggle with this since they haven’t developed spatial consistency and therefore don’t understand that when a letter is reversed, it can represent a new letter (or none at all). Learning the correct way to write letters and numbers simply takes practice. Occasional reversals are common in older kids, but if your child is still consistently reversing letters and numbers by the age of seven, even after proper instruction and practice, he or she should be evaluated by a professional to check for dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

Finger tracing is a simple exercise to help children visually learn the correct way to write letters early on. Once your child is comfortable with this exercise, move on to pencil-tracing the alphabet. Multi-sensory activities, like writing with his or her finger in sand or with chalk, is another great way to help him or her memorize the correct way to write his or her letters.

Mother helping son and daughter with homework.

Messy or Illegible Handwriting
Messy handwriting is very common in children (and even adults!) long after they learn the basics of writing. Little or no spaces between words, or a combination of cursive and printed letters, are two common issues that some kids struggle with. Usually, a child’s brain is working faster than the hand can move, so he or she tries to write down everything as fast as they can — resulting in illegible handwriting.

The first step to help messy handwriting is to take your child for a vision test to rule out bad eyesight as the culprit. If his or her vision is fine, timed writing exercises can help improve his or her handwriting at faster speeds.

Have him or her select a short passage — about three or four sentences — from their favorite book, and ask him or her to write it as fast as he or she can while you time them. Repeat this exercise one or two times a day for three or four days. Once he or she masters the passage, choose a new one and repeat the exercise. You should begin to see improvements. (A little reward after you’ve finished the exercise can also be a strong motivator to help improve, too!)

Stressed out student holding head in hands with pen.

Apathy or Anxiety About Writing
Lack of opportunity or encouragement to play with graphic materials can diminish a child’s curiosity, and can lead to rushed and sloppy work, lack of confidence, and an overall dislike of handwritten projects. Additionally, pressure from parents and teachers to write well can cause anxiety and undue tension in your child.

Make sure your child has ample opportunities to write without the pressure of a homework assignment or school project, and provide a comfortable environment conducive to creativity. Provide easy access to writing supplies, and plenty of room to spread out in a well-lit space. Encourage your child’s imagination by creating stories, plays, and other activities that require him or her to write.

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