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How to Teach Handwriting

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: November 1998
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There are three components to handwriting, whether a child is learning to print or write in cursive: correct letter formation, uniform letter size, and uniform slant. Children should focus on one objective at a time-first, correct formation, then size, then slant. Have them work on several, but not all, letters, forming letters and then words. Once assigned letters are formed correctly, emphasize uniform size-lower case letters consistently half the size of upper case letters, but continue to require correct formation. Then add uniform slant, again, while continuing to require children to maintain the correct form and size already accomplished. Follow this procedure as you add new letters, words, and sentences. When practicing single letters, require the same even spacing as you do between whole words. It helps young children to use a Popsicle stick or some other tool that can be placed on the paper for uniform spacing. (Using one or two fingers is often suggested.) Check slant by drawing a straight line through center of each letter-top to bottom (not left to right). All those lines should be parallel if slant is uniform. Printing may not require this check if letters are formed correctly. Cursive writing, however, often appears sloppy simply because all letters do not slant uniformly. The lines you draw through the letter should look like this: / / / / or slant a bit more to the right, but not be a mix: / l / \.

Oversee practice so children don't fill a page with improper work simply to finish quickly. Praise letters and words written well and have the student erase and rewrite anything unacceptable. While this may seem time consuming, remember that it will actually take more time to undo bad habits.

Young children should use large writing or painting tools for better control. Don't be concerned about letter size at first, instead, emphasize form, letting them draw on blank paper with easy-to-hold "fat" markers, crayons, or paintbrushes which allow less pressure to be used in drawing a solid looking line. Be sure the children use the same grip required later for paper and pencil work. For those children that insist on using adult pens and pencils, add a finger grip (available at many educational supply and office supply stores).

Begin with lines and shapes, encouraging children to draw all vertical lines from the top to the bottom. All circular shapes should begin at the 2 o'clock position, moving up, left, and around-like the letter c. (Kids tend to start at the top and make egg shapes.) Shapes using straight lines-triangles, rectangles, and squares, should always use individual lines that meet, not a single stroke with an attempt to make "pointy" corners. Every line should be drawn left to right or top to bottom. Vertical lines are drawn first, left side, then right side, and then the connecting horizontal lines. The horizontal lines on top are first, and all horizontal lines should begin at the left. Kids have their own short cuts, so these basics do need to be taught.

Next, teach a few lower-case letters and short words. Many children want to learn to write their own name before anything else. That's fine as long as you are careful to show them the correct form for drawing each letter, only use a capital letter at the beginning, and then give him samples to trace.

Once letter formation is acceptable, children should practice on paper with wide guide lines in order to learn to control size as well as to develop uniformity in size. There should be solid lines at the top and bottom, a dotted line in the middle, and space before the next guide lines. This is typical primary handwriting paper, available at many local education or business supply stores. Whether printing or writing in cursive, begin with paper that has a dotted middle line rather than using traditional notebook paper. The center line serves as an important guide and aids in faster achievement of uniformity of size. Handwriting paper is available with lines in a variety of widths. Have the student write something on blank paper so that you can see the size he is most comfortable writing, then use that as your guide, rather than age, to select the most appropriate paper for practice. Write the letter or word on the paper a few times for the students to trace and then copy.

For best results, handwriting practice should be scheduled every day. It is better to take several days off after practicing consistently for a week or so, then to practice erratically. It is also more effective to have two short practices a day then one long practice if the child becomes quickly fatigued when writing. Fine motor skills develop more slowly, especially in boys, then gross motor skills. Often boys fuss about paper and pencil work simply because their hands get tired. Be sure to have students sitting in a proper writing position. The flat surface on which their arms can rest comfortably should not be too high or too low, and their feet should be supported on the floor or on a box, rather than dangling. Improper table height, a slouching or straining body position or dangling feet all sap strength, increasing fatigue.

Handwriting practice consists of copying, not creating, letters, words and sentences. Separate composition from handwriting by allowing children to dictate or type compositions, turn in work with handwriting that is less than perfect, or copy final drafts during regularly scheduled handwriting practice instead of the usual handwriting lesson. Remember that composition requires students to focus on content and organization, and, during the editing process, on spelling and punctuation skills. If handwriting perfection is also required, students who are fatigued by handwriting or who have difficulty with neatness are likely to look for ways to avoid composition assignments. At the very least they will compose extremely short works simply to avoid as much handwriting as possible.

It is also acceptable to allow students to answer workbook questions orally, avoiding handwriting to fill in blanks. During handwriting practice focus on adjusting size or any other difficulties that make attempts to fill in blanks sloppy, illegible, or tediously slow. Increase the total daily time spent on handwriting as an isolated lesson as necessary rather than pressuring the student with handwriting expectations he is not yet able to meet while he is working in other subjects. As maturity and motor skills allow, you may require readable written answers that fit the allotted space. Once you know that the student is capable of neat work done at a reasonable speed, all final written work (not rough drafts) can be required to meet the standard you have set.

Ultimately, students should be able to take phone messages, write letters, and complete applications with writing that is legible, neat, and fits into the space allotted. Teach older students who have great difficulty with cursive writing to sign their names with a mature looking cursive form, and then focus on printing letters that are neat and small enough for filling out forms. They can use their typing skills for everything else. The college bound student will also need to print or write in cursive neatly and with enough speed to complete essay tests. Speed is also required for taking notes, although in that case neatness is required only to the extent that they can read their own writing. Otherwise, they, too, can rely on typing skills for reports and compositions.

Handwriting does not have to be a battleground. By targeting specific and narrow objectives, praising efforts that are well-done as well as pointing out errors to be corrected, and scheduling regular, supervised practice, progress can be made much more rapidly than if children are left on their own to complete handwriting workbooks. Young children want to write well, but are often frustrated by their own lack of coordination and discouraged because it requires so much more effort to please either the teacher or themselves than they thought it would. Older students often rush to complete assignments and argue that neatness is irrelevant. In either case, the teacher must be patient, choose reasonable objectives, and stand firm. Legible handwriting is a worthy cause!



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