Deborah Smith is a highly experienced paediatric occupational therapist with over 30 years’ experience working in the NHS, social care, education and the private sector. She offers her advice to primary teachers on how to work with children who need additional support with their handwriting.

by Deborah Smith
18th August 2020



In the UK there is a push towards writing development at a very early age. Many children enter primary school able to form some letters or write their name. In contrast, many other countries, for example the USA and countries in Scandinavia, focus on early learning through play rather than recording on paper. 

In primary school, especially up to the end of year 2, children are learning to write. As children move through education, writing needs to become an automatic skill so that children can focus on the content of their writing rather than the physical act of writing.

Muscle control and development works from ‘proximal to distal’ (from the middle to the outside). This develops from babyhood. Firstly, the trunk needs to be able to hold itself up against gravity, the shoulder needs to be stable, the arm strong, the wrists flexible, the palms need to be strong, and the fingers need to be able to be strong enough to manipulate a pencil. If the child has poor shoulder control, it is going to be difficult for them to use fine motor skills for writing.

Here's a summary of some of the key issues for teachers to be aware of in relation to children's handwriting skills: 

Getting ready

It’s important to make sure children are ready to write, particularly if they are experiencing handwriting difficulties. Ensure they:

  • sit properly – ensure that the child sits with their feet on the floor and the table is just above elbow height 
  • use the right tool – initially, short pencils should be used as they are easier to control 
  • hold the pencil properly – encourage functional tripod grasp for control and change of direction
  • know how hard to hold the pencil – writing should be presented with consistent mark-making on the page.

(If writing is faint, the pencil grip may indicate the grasp is too light.  Alternatively, if writing rips the paper or leaves an indent on the other side of the page, the grasp may be too hard, and unlikely to be sustainable for any length of time. The child may say their hand hurts due to hand cramps.)

Grip and fine motor skills

Pencil grip evolves as primary-aged children mature. Their first pencils should be stubby and short to allow them to see what they are writing, and to allow control.

Check for immature grips, for example holding the pencil like a wand across the palm, or like a paintbrush. Encourage dynamic tripod grip (pencil stabilised against the middle finger, with the index finger on the top of the pencil to assist with direction). Good pencil grip allows for quick writing and reduces the likelihood of the hand becoming tired.

In-hand manipulation

Muscular weakness within the palm may be linked to lack of opportunities for manual dexterity in modern-day childhood. Weakness within the palm muscles may prevent children from being able to move the pen or pencil within their hand, which is necessary for changing direction in writing (needed for crossing the midline, i.e. letters f, k, t, x and z).

Letter formation

These are the marks required for letter formation - it might be helpful to identify which marks the children you are working with are struggling to form: 

  • Vertical lines: 77% of children aged 2 succeed in imitating.
  • Horizontal lines: 95% of children aged 3 succeed in imitating.
  • Circles: 86% of children aged 3 succeed in imitating.
  • Vertical/horizontal cross: 77% of children aged 3 succeed.
  • Right diagonal line /: Often not achieved until aged 5, with some children not becoming secure in this skill until 9 or 10 years old.
  • Left diagonal line \: develops approximately 5–6 months after the right diagonal line (Beery et al., 2010).

Page orientation

It can be helpful to angle the page to the right for a right-handed child, or to the left for a left-handed child. 

Writing speed

General data suggests that these are the average writing speeds in primary school.

  • Age 6 = 3.6 words per minute
  • Age 7 = 5.6 words per minute
  • Age 8 = 7.2 words per minute.
  • Age 9 = 9 words per minute
  • Age 10 = 10.4 words per minute
  • Age 11 = 12 words per minute (Chu, 2007).

Direction of letters

Direction is very important. If letters are not formed in the correct direction, it is going to be difficult for them to join onto others. Printed writing takes longer to complete as it requires the pencil to be lifted between each letter. Slow writing leads to a delay in the speed of note-taking, which is important for learning later on in education. 

References

Beery, K. E. and Buktenica, N. A. et al. (2010) Beery™ VMI Development Test of Visual Motor Integration (6th edition). Pearson Associates.

Chu, S. (1997) ‘Occupational therapy for children with handwriting difficulties: A framework for evaluation and treatment, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 60(12), 514–520.

In the resource below, Deborah provides practical activities and information on how you can support students in improving their handwriting.






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