Handwriting: a lost art?

pen writing

In our grandmother’s day, writing was one of the major 3 R’s, along with Reading and Arithmetic. (yes, arithmetic was counted as an R word…) Writing was considered a basic skill that all children needed to learn. Lessons were rigidly taught with endless drills.

Today with so many budgetary cuts, National Core Standards continue to chop away at handwriting in the schools, leaving millions of children with sub-standard handwriting when it comes to legibility and function. Other concerned groups point their fingers at the computer and key boarding skills as eroding the need for handwriting. And don’t get me started on texting, which eliminates the need to touch a pencil at all!

Bea Johnson, a national expert on childhood development states, “What happens to the child who is not allowed to write?  The latest research about the development of intelligence leads us to believe this is dangerous ground.  Windows of opportunity that only open once might be missed and potential for learning, lost forever.”

The problem with a lessened focus on handwriting or penmanship, started long ago. From the 1900 to the 1940’s, handwriting required that a teacher be trained in that field, and like a drill sergeant, she taught posture and pencil position right along with letter formation. Left-handed children were made to write with their right hands. We ruined a lot of kids.

From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, two accepted ways of handwriting came out that made everyone confused. Should schools adopt the Zoner-Bloser method (ball and stick) or The D’Nealian method (slanted with flares on each letter)? And to further compound the issue, in the 1970’s the Whole Language approach to learning was introduced. That approach said, we don’t care HOW they write as long as the CONTENT is good.

In the 1980’s handwriting woes became the number one referral to OT’s in the schools. At present day, teachers work hard to fit handwriting into the busy curriculum, but as a parent you can also help to child as he learns to form the letters.  Good letter formation fosters a tremendous sense of accomplishment when another person can read a child’s writing.

Take it from someone who was plagued her whole childhood with atrocious handwriting that there’s more to sloppy handwriting then just a bad habit. Writing is an extremely difficult skill for children to master. It involves a process that requires both mental and physical cooperation to be able to channel one’s thoughts onto paper.

First, it’s important to know that there is more to handwriting than picking up a pencil, placing it on the page and pushing it around. There are at least seven necessary components in any handwriting experience. They are:

  1. Memory: does your child recall hoe each letter is formed? Does he have to sit and think for long periods how the letter should look before he writes it?
  2. Orientation of the letter: Do any of the letters get reversed? The ‘d’ is often the letter that is most often reversed because it occurs more often than the ‘b’, ‘p’, or ‘q’.
  3. Placement on the line: Does your child’s letter float above the line or sink below it?
  4. Size of the letters: As a child gets older, the size of the letters should shrink. If your child is in second grade and the letters are still the bigger size of a Kindergartener’s, this would be an area to practice.
  5. Sequence: Does your child start writing the letters at the top of the letter? All capital letters are properly written by starting at the top and lower case either start in the middle like on an ‘e’ or at the top. No letters are written from the bottom up!
  6. Control: Does your child have a smooth formation to each letter or is there jerkiness?
  7. Spacing: Is there enough spacing between letters so that they don’t touch each other? Is there enough spacing between words so it is obvious where one starts and the next begins?

Now that you know the technicalities, there are plenty of things to do to help your child develop good handwriting skills. Handwriting Without Tears offers a whole line of curriculum and handwriting products that are meant to be fun and game oriented ways to practice writing. They offer everything from workbooks and guides, to special paper, to great hands-on materials for your learner.

Early skills involve crafts like lacing macaroni noodles onto yarn or thread, which works on the bilateral hand motions needed to learn how to write well.

Allowing your kids to trace shapes in sand or make forms and letters in play dough is another good way to get the fingers ready for holding a pen or pencil correctly. Sand tracing or play dough gives students an opportunity to practice their spelling as well.

Break chalk or crayons into smaller, more manageable pieces. This allows children to practice writing with their fingertips without having to hold the whole pencil just yet. You can even let your little ones play with finger puppets to help those fingers get working.

  • Trace in mazes or connects dots to learn the feel of going in all directions.
  • Teach upper case first since those are mostly straight lines. Then lower case, then numbers.
  • Write on dry-erase boards to get arm movement going, instead of just hand movement.
  • Color within the lines.
  •  For the older writer, allow your student to practice on a vertical easel. This is good for wrist and finger movement and dry erase markers can be a blast.
  • For too much pencil pressure, practice writing on a balloon. For too little pressure, shorten the pencil.
  • Draw a picture of a pencil with a cowboy hat to remind the child to start at the top of each letter.
  • Use Wiki Sticks to form the letters on paper. This is good for memory of each letter.
  • For a two player game, have kids try guessing what letter another child is tracing on their back. This is a fun and social way to get kids to practice their letters.
  • Also, make sure you invest in lots of fun writing options. Rainbow markers, disappearing ink, and magic colors are all types of writing utensils on the market that make the task of fun!

Other writing resources:


www.HWT.com (Handwriting Without Tears)