Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Quills, Pens, Pencils: Let's Talk Handwriting!

In my last post I wrote about perceptual motor skills - eye hand coordination and have been asked to go into a bit more detail about graphomotor skills.  Jargon aside:  Let't talk about handwriting.

Graphomotor Skills involve highly specialized coordinated eye-hand-finger movements for writing (and writing only).  Drawing, interestingly enough, is not a graphomotor skill as it involves different muscles and different eye-hand coordination.  [Drawing is considered a fine motor skill.] Many people can play musical instruments, draw, knit, and perform other fine motor actions but have horrendous hand writing.  That is because handwriting has its own very specialized memory-motor, and eye-hand-brain feedback requirements.

What do Kids with Graphomotor Weaknesses Look Like? Basically, kids (and adults) with graphomotor weaknesses have horrible handwriting. My husband calls his handwriting chicken scratch because it looks like a chicken scratched it out.  My son's handwriting is equally illegible. He is in college and his notes still look like a second grader wrote it.

These kids either hate writing, or they write cryptically keeping whatever must be written down as brief and simple as possible.  My son took it even further, he hated writing so much, he learned to do most of his math in his head.  This was quite a problem as most teachers want to see the work.  Because his handwriting was so poor, his 4's became 9's, 3's became 8's, 7's became 1's and to save himself from getting the problems wrong - would simply work them out mentally.  My son was lucky - he has a phenomenal memory and could get away with this until high school.  Then things fell apart again.  

What are some factors affecting handwriting?
  • Visual Discrimination - kids must be able to visually recognize and distinguish each letter of the alphabet so they can accurately interpret and reproduce them.  A "b" has to remain a "b" and not look like a "d" or "p" or "q".  "Gun" must look like "gun" and not "pun" (as in Woody Allen's letter in the clip above).  Otherwise others it can't be read and it makes no sense. [Note that visual discrimination skills effect reading as well as writing.]
  • Orthographic Coding - students must not only be able to discriminate between letters recognizing how each is different and unique, they must remember how to print or write them.
  • Motor planning, motor memory, and execution - kids have to be able to remember letter shapes and the muscle movements necessary to make and execute those shapes.  They then have to remember or plan how to make those shapes.  
  • Kinesthetic Feedback - Finally, kids have to monitor their progress as they write, constantly evaluating feedback that the brain receives from the muscles, nerves, and eyes.
For example, when writing kids must remember what the letters look like, then begin to recreate them.  As they write, they have to monitor what their handwriting to make sure the "a" looks like an "a" and the word "act"  looks like "act"  and not "aot" or "ect" or "acl" etc.

 Strategies and Accommodations For Kids With Poor Handwriting: 
  • Practice in private. Have kids practice penmanship, but at their own pace and in private (at least until there is less embarrassment).
  • Have your kids trace letters and words in sand or even in jello (if you don't mind the temporarily sticky fingers).  Tracing in sand and jello or even in the bathtub adds some resistance and can build stronger muscles and muscle memory.
  • Experiment - try out different types of writing utensils and different types and sizes of paper and line width. Try different sized pens and pencils.  Large pencils for example are easier for kids with weak muscle control to use.  My son hated the "feel" of pencils on the paper and was much more comfortable using a pen. My husband prefers the feel of quills as they glide over the paper.  Experiment.
Note: As with most interventions, some help some but not others, my advice is to try and if necessary move on if not effective.
  • Strengthen hand and finger grips.  Squeezy toys/objects can help.
  • Keyboarding.  This helps for some - not others (my son still prefers taking notes by hand). 
  • Pen/pencil grips - When handwriting sometimes the pencil grip is an issue.  In this case try using different types of pen/pencil grips.  My son had more of a sensory-integration issue (he was too sensitive to the paper and grip and pencil) and the grips did not help.  
  • Graph paper - For those who have trouble with letter size, experts suggest practicing print hand writing on large-boxed graph paper, using one square per letter [practicing privately].
  • Provide ample work and writing space on each page. Make sure there is enough space on mathsheets or worksheets and tests for you child to comfortable fill in the required response.  You may want to discuss this with your child's teacher(s) 
My son, who is actually quite good in math was failing because this teacher put 30 problems on one page lines (_______ ) for the answer and no room to work out the problem.  The teacher expected the students to turn the page over and show work there.  My son's 3's became 8's and 4's became 9's, etc.  At that point his teacher was testing my son's copying ability (which he obviously failed).  After convincing the teacher to keep the same problems while providing work space directly on the page (and not have students turn it over or recopy to work) my son earned A's not F's.  The point:  make sure your child has enough space to work in.  If not, talk to his or her teacher about it.
These are just a few suggestions.  Let me know what you have tried (successfully or otherwise).  Also, please let me know if you have any other questions or issues.

These are just a few ideas.  Please let me know what you have tried (successfully and unsuccessfully), and please let me know if you have any other questions.

Some helpful websites to visit:


  1. my daughter's 7, and I often correct her letter a so that it does not look like a u or d.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  2. Very interesting post Meryl, - I remember handwriting in school, - rows and rows of different letters, and I have forgotten the name of the program but it was a good discipline and had some outstanding results.

  3. These are wonderful tips, Meryl. I’m not a kid any more but my handwriting needs a little help. Seems to me it started out very clear and methodical and has collapsed into funny fragments and, at times, illegible scribbles. Keyboards have replaced the neatness and penmanship we treasured. Writing is an art form of sorts that deserves to be maintained … even by doctors writing prescriptions. :))

  4. Hi Meryl! I'm so glad you left a comment on my blog so I could trace you back to yours. I read several of your posts and plan to visit again. I have a daughter who has autism and has extremely poor motor skills. She can write, but it may take a whole sheet of paper for one word. My son's motor skills are fine, but he hates to write and his writing is illegible most of the time. I think I'm going to visit some of the websites you suggested too.

  5. Hi Wendy. Thanks for your comments. If you have any other questions, please let me know. I hope these are helpful.

  6. Now I know why my writing is good but not my art. Choosing the right pen is definitely the answer, nothing beats writing with a flowing pen, although I do have a weakness for pencils.

  7. If I had to blog in longhand I would be doomed! I can't read my own handwriting. It started when I was reporter and was discouraged from carrying a mini cassette recorder (I know, this dates me) by my editor. I had to write as fast as I could, and the interviewees rarely paused in between sentences. Half the torture of getting the article written was deciphering my notes.

    What kind of motor skill does hand embroidery fall under? I don't seem any better at it than at handwriting.

  8. That was very informative, now I know why I have nice handwriting, and can't draw stick people. Thanks for sharing that, I found it very enjoyable to read.

  9. Very informative post. I have terrible handwriting.

  10. This post was so interesting. Back when I was teaching Kindergarten and Pre-K, we had a program entitled "Handwriting Without Tears". In this program, the children were first introduced through tactile experiences to the basic shapes (lines and curves) of the printed letters.

  11. Thank you for that reminder - involving the tactile component is a great way of helping to develop the necessary muscle memory.

  12. Hi there, It's funny you mention chicken scratch, i have always said that my husband writes like that!
    My daughter is a lefty and hates handwriting. I am glad to hear she isn't the only one. You offer great tips. Thanks for your visit to my blog!
    have a great day

  13. Hi Meryl - your blog was of great interest to me - I have a grandson with aspergers and he is incredibly clever but struggles badly with spelling and writing and my husband is dyslexic - but he is one of those annoying people who never needs to read instruction booklets - he always knows what goes where - thankyou for visiting my blog

  14. Interesting post! My son and husband both have terrible handwriting and I find it difficult to read, but my my daughter and I both are very legible.
    LOL, I remember that scene in Take the Money and Run!

  15. I have similar issues with numbers! Not sure I'd have done too well on some of that testing either.

  16. Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier!

    The question of handwriting is an interesting one. I have heard some people say that the most important thing is to make sure that the child holds the writing utensil properly and has his hand at the proper angle. If you mess up in that early stage, you're doomed!

    I try to nudge my 4 year old in the right direction, but I have noticed that compared to her 2 year old sister, her grasp was more correct from the start. I am interested to see how their writing develops!

    As a beginning homeschooler, I find your blog so interesting and am glad I stumbled on it! (Or did you stumble on mine?)

  17. this is great info. thanks! our 13 y.o. son still has horrible handwriting...though it's better than what it has been. he doesn't like writing things out either which has been a problem in school when he needs to take notes for class or, like you said, write out the steps taken to get at a solution in math.

    thanks for stopping by :)

  18. Great post! Very informative.

  19. By the way,
    I will be posting the recipe for the brazil nut parmesan tomorrow!

  20. Another interesting idea you have presented, thanks for sharing.

  21. What an informative post! I finally understood why we were taught to practice writing letters over and over again.

    I'm afraid the next generation won't be practicing hand writing as much.

  22. The difference between A's and F's makes a whole BIG difference!!! Indeed. Well written, and so very informative.

    Hi again....it's Thursday, and I'm trying to catch up on yesterday's comments left for me. I just wanted to say thank you in a big way for your sweet anniversary comment and your happy wishes. I also made a small token graphic for my appreciation...on the top portion of my blog entry for the day!!

    My Thursday Theme Song Link

  23. I have heard that there is a "window" of sorts for learning handwriting. Have you found that in any of your research? Despite my desire to have great, beautiful handwriting, I feel like I have been stuck with the ugly scrawl since I was in fourth grade. This was an interesting post! MMF

  24. This is a wonderful piece, Meryl! Writing legibly is such a basic skill and yet I'm not sure a lot of attention is paid to it by adults and children alike. Apart from the necessary sharing of information, beautifully formed letters are simply a thing of beauty. Learning calligraphy was something I took on gladly.

    I was lucky enough to learn writing in Ireland as a child...old school,using inkwells and a dip pen, and our teachers valued the clarity good handwriting would provide for all.

    Oddly enough, I seldom write now, preferring to print in bold capitals for casual notes and messages. No-one ever says they can't read what I've written...:)

  25. Both my sons held their pens in strange ways, not the way I learned. They both print. I used to have nice handwriting but now (nearing 60) it is awful. My head thinks faster than my hand can write and I also blame writing at the keyboard for it's devolution.

  26. Great informative post! There is something special about longhand writing. I still do most of my first drafts in longhand! Thank you for stopping by my blog and for your compliment about my Siberian Huskies! We are now one of your new followers! Love your info!

  27. This is a very informative post! I was lucky. My daughter has excellent fine motor skills in her hands. She is really good at whatever she does. I enjoyed reading about the other side. Thanks.

    My Blog

  28. My son is in 9th grade - and since kindergarten he had a problem with his handwriting. He was put through the ringer every year with tests, etc. They say he has dyspraxia - but other then his handwriting he is extremely smart.

    Sorry for delay in returning comment. Last week when blogger was down - it "ate" some of my comments - lol

  29. so many good ideas here, my daughter struggles with her handwriting and i tend to think she's just "not trying" - this is a good reminder she needs help to improve

  30. Learning shorthand in high school "saved" me when taking notes in college and later as a newspaper reporter. I could read my shorthand more easily than my longhand.

  31. Hi! Use the pencil grips for a healthy writing. It is really beneficial . I would suggest to children,autistic children use the pencil grip for writing.
    the pencil grip

  32. Give the child the adequate attention so they don’t feel like deserted.
    chewy tube

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