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Does your child struggle with messy handwriting?

May 23, 2014

Writing should be about the art of putting down your thoughts on paper. Whether a child is learning to write their name for the first time, draw a picture to share a story, or compose an essay for class, the most important part of any writing is the message itself. Handwriting that is difficult to read distracts and becomes the focus. So what happens when the mechanics of writing become such a struggle that the child is focusing all their energy on how to write rather than the writing itself? Where do parents go for help when their child just can’t seem to write neatly and every attempt ends up with tears? I’ve got a solution.

Handwriting is a bit more complicated than it first appears, but with a few simple strategies most messy writers can experience success. Let’s take a look at a few of the underlying skills that have to come together to produce legible writing:

  • Visual tracking of the eyes across the page
  • Sustained attention
  • Visual perception- or the child’s ability to process and understand written information
  • Fine motor skills- the hand’s ability to grasp and manipulate in the most effective patterns
  • Hand strength
  • Visual motor skills- synthesizing what you see and generating a motor response to put on paper
  • Good core stability for attention and isolating fine motor movements of the hand.

So what should you do if you have concerns about your child’s ability to write neatly?

Just practicing writing isn’t usually enough because it doesn’t address the underlying skills that will change the problem. For most kids, a few simple strategies can make a big difference. The great news is that working on these skills can be a lot of fun and a great way to spend quality time with your child.

A few suggestions:

  • Play dough with all the tools and gadgets- messy but worth it
  • Short fat crayons will facilitate using their fingertips rather than their whole hand. My favorite can be found at
  • Child-safe scissors to practice cutting is an excellent way to build hand strength while also working on more mature grasp patterns. Postcards are thicker and provide better feedback than paper when cutting. Have them cut up junk mail and create a collage.
  • Large chopsticks or tongs use the same grasp pattern that the child will need to hold a pencil correctly. These are great for older kids too. You can purchase a pair for under $4 at, or a local toy store like Lightenup! right here in Winter Park.  Have your child use them to pick up small fruit snacks, chicken nuggets or other favorite snacks.
  • To promote fine motor skills, play games with pieces for the child to pick up and manipulate- Legos, tinker toys, Lite-Brite, Hi Ho Cherry-O,  Mousetrap, Connect Four, Scrabble Slide, Tumble, and Jenga.
  • A very simple but great strategy for all ages is to use a slanted or vertical surface such as an easel. This will bring the hand into a more stable position against the body and position the wrist into an optimal position for fine motor control. An easel is great for younger kids. Older kids might prefer more mature looking solution such as a slantboard. You can make your own but taking a large 3” # ring binder and turning it sideways will work as a slanted writing desk.
  • Is there an app for that? Yes. Many. My favorite is iWriteWords. I love it because it will teach the correct way to form the letters without errors. It’s bright, engaging, and accessible for all kids who are learning to write their alphabet.
  • My favorite writing workbooks teach the letters in sequence from easiest to hardest, which just makes sense. You can find them at Workbooks and multi-sensory tools at this site are inexpensive and only take about 5-10 minutes for each lesson. They start at pre-K and go up through cursive writing.
If you need more help, your child’s public school will have an occupational therapist that can offer suggestions. They are a great resource and a good first step. A clinic-based OT can engage your child in a full evaluation which would include analyzing all underlying skill components, performing standardized testing, and completing a skilled observation of your child to offer insight into which skills they are struggling with. If you feel this is the way to go, talk to your pediatrician about your concerns.