Supporting my child with handwriting

Handwriting is widely recognised as one of the most complex skills that we learn and teach, involving a range of motor, visual, language, emotional and cognitive skills. The development of handwriting skills are influenced by having the opportunity to practice at an early age, experience, diagnosis, communication skills and equipment. 

Child writing letter to Santa with adult beside

The ability to write doesn’t develop by itself. It needs to be learned in a systematic way with lots of opportunity for practice. Only then can a child become fluent in handwriting.

It is important for a child to hand write and build their skills as much as possible until at least the age of 8 years old. Handwriting helps us to develop a sense of a letter sound and shape in our minds and bodies; it helps us to learn to recognise letter sounds and the physical act of pencil on paper forming letters improves spelling and reading.

In order to be ready for the formal teaching of handwriting, your child should have developed all of the skills below to a good standard:

  • Postural control – this is required for sitting upright and provides stability for the shoulders. It allows for precise and controlled movements of the elbow, forearm, wrist and fingers.
  • Strong hands  for the development of an efficient, precise grasp.
  • The ability to hold utensils and use tools – this involves the child knowing what they want to do and having the necessary motor skills to manipulate and control the tool e.g. cutlery, scissors, paintbrushes.
  • Can see and understand letters – e.g knowing left and right, finding a shape on a page, ability to recognise shapes, notice details and observe differences.
  • The ability to copy pre-writing shapes – for example vertical lines, horizontal lines, a circle, cross, a right slanted line, a left slanted line, square, and an X shape.
  • The ability to use the hands together  – demonstrated by scissor skills, buttoning or cutlery use.
  • Development of a dominant hand – this is not fully established until 5-7 years of age and its quite common to see hand swapping as they master this skill.

If your child has not achieved the above yet, they are at a pre-writing stage of development. Click here for our helpful resource for parents and carers to support their child in pre-writing.

Child with a stick writing on the beach When helping your child to learn early writing skills, make sure it is all about fun and practice.

We recommend using a multi-sensory approach to developing letter formations; this means using as many senses as possible to reinforce letter shape and movement. So combine activities that include vision, sound, touch and movement.

For example, when children traditionally learn to write there is an over reliance on vision – seeing and copying the letters. By including verbal instructions, adding texture to paper, using pens/pencils that have a scent or bright colours and asking the child to ‘draw’ the letter using their whole body, the correct letter shape is easier to grasp.

As your child gets more able with their letter formations these different sensory cues can be reduced.

  • Use plain paper. It is more about getting the shapes of the letters rather than neatness or size at this stage.
  • Children want to learn to write their names. Teach them the capital for the beginning of their name and the individual lower-case letters. Some names are much easier than others so focus on the easy letters first.
  • Talk about the pencil actions and make them into stories or images.
  • Start by teaching your child lower case letters first
  • It is important children learn the correct movement of the letters which is often not achieved from just copying/tracing.
  • Teach letters in groups that have the same shape or pencil stroke within them
    c o a d g q e
    r n m h b p
    i f I j l t u y
    v w x z k
    S
  • Keep a diary when on holiday with pictures, tickets, brochures etc. Your child can add drawings, titles and write what they did etc.
  • Try writing shopping lists together or write out a menu for dinner.
  • Make up a story together and then take turns writing bits.
  • Try spy writing – use a candle and some black paint or you can buy an invisible pen that only shows under its own ultra-violet light.
  • Get your child to write and hide a secret message. Then find it and do what it says.
  • Make a treasure hunt.
  • Try cave writing with paper stuck underneath the table – this is great for shoulder stability.
  • Do funny writing – Try a shaky pen, triple colours etc.

Is your child comfortable?

Can they hold and use a pencil or pen without pain in the wrist or fingers?

Ideally we use our fingers to form letters when writing, however lots of children develop other ways of writing. Here are some things to consider if your child is not comfortable

  • Try different shaped pens/pencil including shorter ones, wider barrels, triangular shapes ones, ribbed ones or ergonomic ones
  • Try different ink, some pens are much more free flowing
  • There are lots of different pencil grips you can add. If you choose to use a pencil grip consider the aim and if the grip is helping. A popular choice is often the ultra-pen grip (see useful equipment)
  • If the child has a very upright pencil, you can try a ‘handiwriter’ or a flexible band around the wrist
  • Try some of the suggested activities in our pre-writing information to develop strength in the hands.
  • It is not recommended to try and change the grip of children over 10 but try to find the most comfortable writing tool.

It’s also worth noting that even if a grip looks odd to you, if the child is not in pain and you can read their writing this is a functional grip that does not need to be altered.

Sometimes children can use too much pressure or not enough pressure when writing. This can make it difficult to read if the pressure is too light and heavy pressure can often cause discomfort.

Sometimes children press hard on the paper and hold the pencil tightly to get a stronger sense of where their hand is moving. This can persist as a habit in older children. Here are some activities that may help your child become more aware of the pressure they are using:

  • Light up pens that are triggered by pressure, if they don’t use enough pressure they need to try and keep the light on. If they use too much try keeping it off.
  • Play around with pencils making dark and light lines
  • Use carbon copy paper (paper with 2/3 layers). If your child doesn’t use enough pressure ensure their ‘message’ goes through all the layers. If your child uses too much pressure try and keep it to the top 1 or 2 layers. Please see video for example.
  • Heavier writing instruments or pencil toppers can increase this feedback.

 

Children can sometimes have difficulty with the formation, placement, size and direction of letters. This can all have an effect on presentation and the ability to read what your child has written. Some of these are expected when first learning and up until the ages of 6 or 7 years, this should be considered typical.

  • Look at how your child forms their letters and make sure they are using a sense of movement to make the correct sequence of pencil strokes. If this is a challenge and has not developed for your child go back to the ‘How we can help’ and ‘Fun handwriting activities’ sections above.
  • To encourage spacing between words try putting a lolly pop stick or index finger between the words.
  • Make sure your child can recognise the letter they are looking at visually. If this is challenging, they may be struggling to understand or interpret what they see. Please get in touch if you feel you need extra support with this.
  • Make sure you teach your child that letters have different relative sizes. Giving each size a name and place on the page or line to reinforce this (see the handwriting paper section and the equipment section for more information).

It can be useful to have structure when learning to write letters. Writing on paper that is double lined, squared or coloured can all be helpful. This also supports greater awareness of left to right direction and stop and start position.

  • Double lined paper can be used to teach and practice size, shape and position.
  • Squared graph paper can help with numbers.
  • Putting a star or green dot on the page where you want your child to begin writing is helpful. Placing a star or red dot at the end of the page can help with stopping or provide a cue to move to the next line.
  • Teach and practice one letter at a time
  • Some handwriting paper is raised so children can feel when their pencil touches the line.
  • Some paper has definite zones for taller letters and zones for those that go below the line.

Children require a stable, comfortable posture in order to have good control of their hands for handwriting.

This involves developing trunk, hip and shoulder stability so that the control of the elbow, forearm, wrist and fingers can become more precise and accurate. During the early years working and playing in different positions such as standing, lying, four-point kneeling or high kneeling can help to develop postural control and may be more engaging to the child.

Initially children may struggle to sit for prolonged periods at a desk and regular ‘movement breaks’ may help, encourage interest and attention. This may be something as simple as standing up and stretching to something more active such as jumping on a mini trampoline. Gross motor warm-up activities will also help prepare the body for working, as well as developing control and stamina.

Good posture - 90° angle at knee, foot and seat in backAs well as developing posture, consider the environment, e.g. the size and position of tables and chairs. The optimum seating position involves the child’s thighs being well back in the chair with the feet placed flat on the floor, with their ankles, knees and hips bent at a 90 degree angle. The ideal table height is approximately 2” above the height of the bent elbow (when the child is sitting upright).

It can be helpful for some children to use a sloping desk. This can encourage the child to maintain an upright position and supports a comfortable wrist position for writing (see equipment section).

Top view of kid's left hand holding color pencil and drawing on white blank paper. Writing with your left hand is not the same as with your right, this can often be harder as the writing is directed toward the body and pushed across the paper which requires more effort to achieve. So, teaching a child to write with his or her left hand is not just the opposite from teaching how to write right-handed.

It is especially important for parents and teachers to understand how to teach left-handed children to write correctly and some of the most important factors are:

  • the position of the writing paper
  • the position of the arm and wrist
  • the grip on the writing instrument.

Position

The paper should be positioned left of the child’s midline, and tilted so that the top right corner of the paper is closer to the child than the top left corner.

The angle that the paper is tilted will vary according to the individual child. The important thing to remember is to keep the arm perpendicular to the bottom of the page. The wrist should be straight and the writing hand should be below the writing line.

Pencil Grip

When writing Left-handers need to grip the pen or pencil far enough back from the point to be able to see what is being written, and also to not smear what has just been written. It is recommended the child grip the pencil around 2.5 cm (1 inch) to 3.8 cm (1.5 inches) from the point.

Consider the type of tool your child is using as there are several pens and pencils available specifically for left handers (see the equipment section below).

If the grip is too close to the point, make a mark on the pencil at the right distance to remind the child where to hold the pencil. The wrist should be fairly straight, not bent sharply.

The hooked style of writing that can be seen with some left handers has been adopted because they are trying to see what they are putting on the page. Careful consideration of paper placement and pen grip can prevent this.

Mum helping daughter with computerIf handwriting is not proving an effective tool for your child, it would be sensible to consider supporting their writing with alternatives alongside the development of this skill. If you feel this is the case with your child, we would recommend having a conversation with school staff on ways to take this forward.

Alternatives to handwriting while at school could include the following:

  • Speaking your ideas and having work scribed
  • Reducing the amount of handwriting expected by providing pre-written sheets and information so your child has to fill in only certain sections
  • Using spider diagrams, drawings or pictures to record knowledge
  • ICT alternatives (this will need careful consideration by your child’s school as this is a motor skill that will require direct teaching and practice sessions)
  • Voice to text programs

If you feel you need more support navigating this issue with your school we recommend you make contact with SNAP Cymru.

When to contact us 

It is recommended that school staff also access the above information and implement use of the Handwriting Motorway Program to support your child’s handwriting skills.

This will help to identify specific gross and fine motor concerns, set goals and monitor progress. A lack of progress would then trigger a referral to the specialist teachers located within the Local Authority Learning Support Team for consultation and support. This in turn can provide access to a specialist Occupational Therapist located within this team. 

Useful equipment

The following examples serve to demonstrate the type and quality of product you may want to copy.  We do not endorse any brand.

Plastic pencil holder to aid writing

Ultra Pencil Grip

To aid pencil grasp

Handiwriter

To aid pencil grasp

Handwriting paper with three sections per line from Twinkl

‘Sky, grass, mud’ lined paper

By creating a free Twinkl account you can download these sheets

Left handed pens and pencils with hand indentations

Left handed pens and pencils

With ergonomic grip

Slanted whiteboard

For comfortable wrist position

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