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Handwriting 101

Helping Your Child Learn to Write

In this world of keyboards, styluses and Mavis Beacon, some people may think that handwriting is on its way out. Be that as it may, it's not going to happen anytime soon and your children are still going to have to learn how to correctly hold that pen or pencil and make letters go legibly across the page. When and how that happens is a milestone for some children and a nightmare for others.

Anne Pugliese, mother of three from Tangent, Ore., feels that nightmare would come closer to describing her 10-year-old son's struggle with handwriting than any other word. No matter what they tried, her son's fingers just didn't seem to want to work right. "When he was a preschooler, we tried fat crayons, bulb shape crayons, sand writing, wiki stix and vertical writing," says Pugliese.

Nothing seemed to encourage him to write, and to top it all off, he seemed to have texture sensitivities and hated the feeling of most of the supplies they bought him. As he grew older they noticed that his pencil grip was wrong and they tried to correct it. "Instead of a classic tripod hold, he grips the pencil between only thumb and forefinger in almost a fist," says Pugliese. "This makes writing more of a gross motor whole arm event rather than wrist and finger fine motor event, which is very inefficient for letter formation, pencil control and fatigue."

The Write Right

There are several things that make handwriting more difficult for one child than another. One is the rate of development.

Fine motor skills are the ability to control small precise movements with the fingers, wrists and hands. Children need to develop this ability before they can write legibly. The age during which these skills develop vary from child to child. Some children have amazing finger dexterity at ages 2 or 3, while others are still developing them at ages 5 and 6 or beyond.

Erin Brown Conroy, author of 20 Secrets to Success With Your Child (Celtic Cross Publishing, 2003) and the upcoming series of books on handwriting, Writing SkillBuilders, Book One: A Fun-Filled Book of Prewriting Skills for Beginning Writers and Book Two: A Fun-filled Activity Book to Build Strong Handwriting Skills (Celtic Cross Publishing, August 2004), says that hand-eye coordination begins to develop at an early age and children need to perfect that coordination in order to learn writing skills. "Through repetition and practice of specific movements, the brain and muscles learn to work together as a team," says Conroy.

Conroy and other experts encourage parents to give their children a wide range of prewriting activities to promote the development of the necessary skills. "Fine motor tasks that encourage eye-hand coordination of any kind help children with writing," says Conroy. These may include:

  • Placing small pegs in pegboards;
  • Sticking golf tees in Styrofoam;
  • Dropping pebbles in skinny tubes;
  • Moving coins, buttons and beads from one container to another with the index finger and thumb.

Get a Grip

The correct grip is one of the most important things you can teach your child. This is also the first thing you should check if your child is having difficulty with her handwriting. The wrong grip may be causing your child to strain too hard physically to manipulate the pencil.

Is your child's thumb actually on the pencil, or is it wrapped around the pencil or the other fingers? She should grip the pencil equally by the thumb, the side of the middle finger and the tip of the index finger. This is called a "tripod grip."

Once your child has the correct grip, there are many fun writing activities that can encourage prewriting and writing skills. Conroy gives the following tips to encourage your child's writing skills:

  • Tracing an adult's writing first, then writing the same thing underneath.
  • Writing captions under pictures.
  • Creating designs that are repetitive in nature, using the "strokes" of handwriting.
  • Lightly pounding thin, short picture nails with a tack hammer into Styrofoam. For more difficulty, have the child put the nail into a line drawn in a shape on the wood.
  • Lacing cards, lacing pegs, lacing beads.
  • Tracing shapes and letters with a finger, then a larger stick, into dry or wet sand, rice or shaving cream.

What About Cursive?

The debate is raging on whether we should continue to teach our children cursive or just let it quietly die away. Those on both sides of the issue are passionate about the topic.

Ann Marie Friedrick, a home educator and speaker from Scholls, Ore., feels that cursive is on its way out. "In our current society, let's face facts, word processors have taken over the majority of written correspondence," says Friedrick. "Everything from personal letter writing to college and work reports are done via computer. On a scale of one to 10, good cursive skills would measure a five, in my opinion."

Other parents, such as Susan Viator from Gresham, Ore., agree. "In 2004, cursive handwriting is an anachronism," says Viator. "I think it's somewhat important for a child to be able to read cursive (letters from Grandma are good for that!), but very unimportant for one to be able to write it."

Erin Brown Conroy, parenting expert and handwriting teacher disagrees. "No matter what our technological advances, handwriting will always be used functionally and as an art form," says Conroy.

Erika Karres, author of Make Your Kids Smarter: 50 Top Teacher Tips (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2002), believes that practice makes perfect when it comes to handwriting. "Have your child practice twice a day," says Karres. "Make a game out of it by doing simple mazes and word searches together. Do lots of tic-tac-toe type paper and pencil games – make it all fun!"

If your child is still having difficulty with their handwriting and practice has become a time of contention, then perhaps it is time to look at the problem more closely. "The handwriting skill is affected by whatever else is going on in the child's life, so of course, if learning to handwrite is overly hard for the child, medical and other reasons need to be ruled out," says Karres.

Sensory integration issues and ADHD are a couple of medical reasons for poor handwriting skills, as are upper body weakness, poor tactile discrimination and poor visual perception skills. An evaluation with an occupational therapist can pinpoint the problem and work to solve it. Your child's teacher or physician will probably be able to refer you to a good therapist. If you have tried everything and your child still has poor handwriting, it may be time to just accept it.

"What matters is writing content and correctness, not necessarily the presentation," says Karres. "Some children are just better at handwriting than others. Let's celebrate our talents and diversities."

Keep in mind:

  • Children develop fine motor skills at different rates, so don't be concerned if Susie isn't writing as well as Johnny from down the street. Spend a lot of time doing prewriting activities with your child and the handwriting will come!
  • Correct pencil grip is the No. 1 most important aspect of handwriting. Children should grip the pencil equally by the thumb, the side of the middle finger and the tip of the index finger. If your child's finger becomes red or the knuckle is white from the pressure exerted, then the child is holding the pencil too hard.
  • Practice makes perfect when it comes to handwriting, but making it a fun thing that you and your child do together will increase the chances that not only will your child handwrite successfully, but will enjoy it a whole lot more!

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