The average child spends about one quarter to one-half of the school day engaged in some kind of fine motor activity, mainly handwriting. It stands to reason then that the quality of your child’s handwriting can make or break his educational performance. In some cases, a child who has serious difficulty with this subject may come to dislike writing activities altogether, so it's important that parents and teachers adopt an understanding approach to the child and his problems.

Janice Stringer, a teacher at Broward Estates Elementary in Florida, sees a lot of the same problems with a few of her fourth graders. “Some of them don’t know how to space between letters and between words. There is this one boy who writes all his letters together so it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. And some of them reverse their letters as well, writing b instead of d,” she says.

Chris Hipsher, an occupational therapist who works with children of all ages in the school system, describes these as “visual perceptual problems - writing entire words or certain letters backwards.” He also encounters “issues with copying things from the blackboard or from a textbook, being unable to stay in the lines or start/stop the letters at the right spots within or on the lines, sizing issues within words or sentences. And poor grasp. They either grasp too hard or too light: some of them write too lightly or so hard as to rip the paper.”  

Handwriting Readiness

What then, is the underlying cause of these problems? Experts contend that children who are taught handwriting before they are ready may become discouraged and develop poor writing habits that are later difficult to correct. Some children may be ready at age four, while others may be ready at age six. A number of factors are responsible for this: maturity, environment and interest levels can all play a part. However, children need to be able to produce horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved lines prior to learning to form letters and numbers. Also, they need to understand the concept of left to right and top, middle and bottom. However, as parents, we tend to have the child form letters and numbers before these prewriting skills are developed.

When should parents seek help for their child? If:

  • By age five or six, your child is unable to print his name or copy letters in upper case.
  • By age five or six, your child attempts to write his name and other letters, but they are illegible and/or messy.
  • Your child’s writing is either too light or too dark.
  • Your child attempts to write letters and words but reverses some letters i.e. he makes a b instead of a d or s is turned the wrong way.
  • Your child has no sense of direction in writing – left to right or up to down.
  • Your child slouches, rests his forehead on his arm, or falls from the chair during writing tasks.
  • The teacher reports that your child is unable to complete his work in a timely manner.

How can the parent help the child at home?

Children love to explore with their hands, so young children should be given adequate opportunity to do this. The following activities are fun to do and will help your child develop fine motor skills:

  • Squeezing playdoh or silly putty and rolling it between the fingers.
  • Using a key to open a padlock
  • Folding and tearing paper
  • Picking up small objects with thongs or tweezers
  • Drawing in shaving cream or finger paint
  • Pinching and sealing Ziplock bags
  • Completing dot-to-dot pictures and mazes

Be sure to provide a quiet and comfortable atmosphere. Do not be concerned if your pre-school child does not seem to have a dominant hand. This will come later. In the early stages, some children may switch from one hand to another during writing tasks.

In a small number of cases, a child may never be able to master the fundamentals of good handwriting. If this happens, your child’s teacher may recommend assistive technology to make written communication easier for your child, or occupational therapy. However, in the majority of cases, your child can receive the handwriting help she needs to assist her in his educational performance.