Have you ever tried to grade an assignment and been unable to understand anything on the paper? Does it seem to be getting worse?
Handwriting instruction was written out of state standards in many places in 2010. Some held onto teaching it until around 2013. Once something is written out of standards, it becomes very challenging to convince leaders to continue allowing it to be taught.
The result is that many of our students in junior high and high school don’t have a clue what they’re doing in regard to writing. It presents a huge problem when students can’t even read what they’ve written.
It takes years to properly develop consistently legible handwriting with careful instruction. It takes even longer to add cursive skills to printing abilities.
Most standards have now added teaching print and cursive back into the curriculum, but it won’t be enforced for at least another year or two. In the meantime, we’ll all have to add to the instruction to aid our students in their efforts to be understood.
It will not only make it easier for you to grade their work, but it will enhance their usefulness in the workforce. The inability to write well can be fine if all work is done on computers, but since we don’t even know what the workforce will look like in the future, it’s better to teach our students now with the possibility that they won’t need it rather than them needing it and not having the resources to learn how.
Here are a few of the basics.
One: “My Handwriting Is Worse Than Theirs.”
Although many of us had the advantage of being taught handwriting in school, people often lose the knack to form letters well as they age and get further away from instruction (which is actually an excellent reason to provide writing instruction all 13 years of formal education).That’s ok. In fact, students are likely to find it a bit endearing if you’re “realearning” and practicing handwriting right alongside them.
All of the following advice is truly applicable for ANY age. We know firsthand and acknowledge that the struggle is real!
Two: Handwriting Is a Full-Body Activity
It surprises many people to learn that you use your core muscles to write. Many people think of writing as something to be done with your hand. The truth is, writing involves your fingers, hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, neck, core muscles, hips, thighs, and feet. If anyone of these is out of alignment, it makes it more difficult to engage the muscles you need to write neatly.
Why does sitting correctly matter? Because the wrong position will wear you out. It causes unnecessary fatigue and strain to muscles.
When practicing to form letters correctly, put your feet flat on the floor, straighten your back while tilting forward from your hips. Relax your neck and shoulders, and position your paper so it’s slightly tilted and held with the hand that isn’t writing.
You should also sit in the right sized chair. You want your thighs to be at a 90-degree angle, so if you are taller or shorter than average, changing your seat height may actually help your handwriting.
It may be difficult at first, especially if you or your students are used to slouching, sitting with your feet tucked under you, or sitting with your legs crossed. You may have weak core muscles, but new habits are definitely attainable.
Improve Fine Muscle Coordination
Large, or gross, muscles are important to writing, but so are fine motor skills. Those engage small muscle groups in the fingers, hands, and wrists.
Many people dislike writing things by hand because they don’t have very strong fine muscle control. In early childhood education, these muscles are built by playing with playdough, doing activities that involve threading things together (like learning to tie shoelaces), and anything that involves pinching, grasping, and/or twisting movements.
Having students pinch, squeeze, or play with silly putty, “stress” squeezies, clay, or even playdough while chatting about a topic or listening to a lecture to which notes are provided will help them strengthen those muscles. All of this makes writing less painful (and can help make it neater).
In addition, remind yourself and your students that writing is not just done with the fingers or wrists. Really, the whole arm up to the shoulder is involved in helping to stabilize everything from the forearm down to make handwriting clearer. When used properly, it can also prevent discomfort.
Getting a Grip
One final thing to pay attention to in the physicality of handwriting is pencil grip.
The best sort of grip to use is called the tripod grip. The pencil is held between the thumb and the first finger. Some people add the second (or middle) next to the first finger for support, but if not in being used, the second, the third, and the fourth (ring and pinky) fingers should be tucked under the pencil toward the hand. This provides added support for the controlled manipulation of the pencil.
The pencil should be held loosely enough to fall back onto your hand for support and near the point. “Choking up” on the pencil, or getting too close to the point, makes your hand cramp. Trying to hold the pencil higher throws off the balance and makes writing more difficult.
There are some very inventive pencil grips out there! Some people hold their pencil in their fist, some wrap their thumb around their fingers, some hold the pencil with all five fingers, and some position the pencil between the first two and last two fingers.
You can use any grip and make it work; however, it’s worth retraining yourself to write with the tripod grasp if possible simply because it works with the rest of the body better.
Retraining feels weird at first! If you practice writing with a different grasp for 15 to 20 minutes a day, though, it will soon become more comfortable. At the very least, you’ll have an option to switch over to that grasp when needed.
Students in high school may not be easily convinced to give up their grip, so as long their handwriting is good and their grip is comfortable, pick your battles.
Three: Good Handwriting Takes Teaching, Reteaching, and Consistent, Focused Practice
Beginning writers are learning the language as a whole, so learning to write fluently can take years. They don’t know how to write the letter Tt. They don’t even know what it is or what it means. Writing is just one of a long list of things they are learning and attempting to do, so it makes sense that it would take so long.
If your students are just fine-tuning and adjusting minor changes in grip, gross motor position, and positioning strokes onto the paper, it should take a lot less time. It will, however, definitely take time.
Focus on letters that are particularly challenging for your students. Look at how that letter is formed, use a set game plan for creating that letter, then do the same movement every time.
Handwriting is a skill within itself, so it needs to be taught, retaught, and practiced in isolation in the beginning. As soon as possible, though, have students integrate it into their work. When taking notes, answering questions, filling out worksheets, or writing on the board, ask them to go back in their work to find and correct the letter(s) you are working on.
Although focusing on the minutiae in isolation is the best way to introduce correct formation, research has found that using the information in the context of daily life is the only way to make the information stick. Preferably, students can write once without stopping to focus on handwriting, then go back and correct those details.
Handwriting should enhance learning, not interrupt it, so be sure your students are concentrating on content first.
Four: Provide Boundaries - Lines Are Helpful
You may remember elementary writing paper. There were usually three lines. The middle line was dotted or dashed, and there was room under the third line for letters that sweep under in formation.
Those lines were really helpful! They were usually very large, too, because a Kindergartener’s eyesight is still developing. They need things to be significantly bigger. It’s easier for them to write larger, too, since they are transitioning from learning gross motor skills to developing and using more of their fine motor skills.
Because older students have more developed eyesight and sophisticated fine motor skills, you don’t have to use the paper with bigger lines specifically designed for learning to write.
College ruled notebook paper is perfectly fine for high schoolers, although they’ll use a little more room when practicing handwriting. For junior high and lower, wide-ruled paper may be best.
Use four lines. The top line is for taller letters - capitalized letters and lowercase letters b, d, f, h, k, l, and t. Many letters start at the top and work their way down; although there are exceptions (d is easier started at the “middle” line, where you make a “c”, then without lifting the pencil, go up to the top line and back down to the where you stop for print or make a chain in cursive to hook on to the next letter).
Smaller letters - a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, and z - generally start on the middle line and go down to the third line. Lowercase e starts just below the line, shoots out to the right, then goes up to the middle line and finishes out like a “c”.
Lowercase m, n, and r are made by beginning the same way, so group teaching those together. Lowercase u, v, and w are similar and can be taught together, and s and z pair up nicely.
Finally, that fourth line is reserved for lowercase letters with “tails” - g, j, p, q, and y. These all start on the middle line and finish on the fourth line.
Grouping letters and teaching their formation goes a lot faster than working on one at a time. Because older students are already familiar with these letters, they won’t be reinventing the wheel, just perfecting it.
Five: Choose and Display a Standard
There are several standard types of handwriting: D’nelian, which is written at a slant, and Zaner-Bloser, which is written straight up and down. There is a simpler form of straight up-and-down writing used for students who need intervention called “stick and ball”. Zaner-Bloser is closest to stick and ball and is easier to learn to use in print (there’s a separate set for cursive), but D’Nelian is best if you’re going straight to cursive because it’s curved in a way to connect already.
If your students had any training in a particular style, it may be easiest to start there.
Many early childhood experts balked at the idea of not teaching handwriting, and kept plugging away despite resources, budget cuts for handwriting, and it not being in the curriculum. If possible, talk to a pre-k, Kinder, or First Grade teacher in your district and ask which they used.
If that information isn’t readily available, stick and ball are easiest both to use and teach. No matter what style you choose, use it consistently and display it wherever possible. Give students a personal copy, or make copies available. Some people have a very difficult time recreating the proper formation when looking at it from the board to their paper and need a smaller, closer example.
Six: Encourage Participation
Make handwriting fun, and make sure students understand that it is a valuable thing for them to work on, or it will tough to get much buy-in.
Have students set achievable goals, like making half of their lowercase letters correctly in context, then 75%, then 90%.
Some students may already have amazing handwriting. Give those students a different challenge. Have them teach themselves calligraphy or some other style of lettering.
Many students truly love the creativity of personalizing their handwriting. If it’s legible and pain-free, have them work on doing it according to the standard when focusing on handwriting, but at other times, allow them to continue with their own style.
For those boys who are sportsmen and may balk at improving their style, approach it from the standpoint of a physical challenge. Poor handwriting doesn’t make you stronger, but excellent handwriting requires significant strength in the smallest muscle groups. That kind of dexterity can also be very useful in many sports.
For students who live for video gaming, it can increase control that’s useful to them as well.
A Final Note - Dysgraphia
Another really important reason to teach handwriting is that it helps to identify students who may be dysgraphia.
Dysgraphia is thought to be a neurological disorder. For a long time, it was just lumped in with dyslexia, which is a separate disorder with some similarities. People with dysgraphia may struggle with fine motor coordination, impaired memory, and spelling issues that are especially apparent when writing. They are often unable to appropriately recreate the sizing and formation of letters.
If a student is struggling with dysgraphia, they are working so hard to make the proper size and formation of each letter that they aren’t able to focus on anything else. Little of the content is able to sink in when they are writing.. It takes an inordinate amount of time to get anything written.
It is entirely possible that no amount of teaching or reteaching letter formation is going to help these students with their handwriting because they need intervention on a more intense level.
Unfortunately, there is very little known about dysgraphia at this time.
There are some resources available on teacherspayteachers.org, and there are a few websites with information. One book we recommend is Handwriting Brain-Body DisConnect: Adaptive Teaching Techniques to Unlock a Child’s Dysgraphia for the Classroom and At Home by Cheri L. Dotterer. The paperback is about $15.
Helping a student to realize they may be struggling with dysgraphia is really a gift. It makes many things so much more difficult for the student, and it hinders learning significantly. There isn’t enough known about dysgraphia in many school districts, and there may not be much intervention available, but you may be able to assist in getting the student a 504 for testing at the very least.