3 Easy Ways to Improve Even the Worst Handwriting

As an occupational therapist in the school setting, I am often called in to help with poor handwriting.  There are many ways that an occupational therapist may help improve the written output of a student’s handwriting, but today I am going to discuss the old school methods that can improve the overall legibility of anyone’s handwriting without changing a single letter within the handwriting!  Amazing, why yes, it is…read on!

It is important to remember that today, manuscript, or print, is most often not systematically taught. Kindergartners are expected to already know how to write their letters by the time they start kindergarten. Often, young children go to daycare or stay home with mom, and they may be given worksheets or workbooks with letters on it to trace to learn their letters. So they trace and they copy and one day the letter they are modeling looks pretty close, even though they may have started the formation at the bottom or on the right…you know ….totally wrong! Nevertheless, hey, an “A” looks like an “A” and we call it good, and “Hey, it counts.”

The problem with this is that if it is left uncorrected (and it usually is), it becomes and ingrained motor pathway and this becomes “hardwired” into the brain. This pathway may be corrected if caught early enough, up to about 2nd grade, maybe 3rd. However, ones it has become deeply etched, in my experience, changing the motor pattern is difficult, if not impossible to change (about 3rd-4th grades).

It is here now, that we have a few options. One option is to teach the child a new motor plan (Cursive handwriting), and teach it systematically and CORRECTLY. This may be taught by the teacher, the parent or maybe or maybe not, an occupational therapist. The program that I most highly recommend is Handwriting Without Tears, it was created by Jan Olsen, an occupational therapist. The beginning cursive book may be purchased here. The trick to this program is perfect practice. Jan Olsen, OT and creator of the program, professes short bursts of perfect practice. This means that teacher, parent, therapist, must do short intervals on a regular basis while watching for and ensuring correct formation during the learning process. The teachers guide may be found here.

The problem with this plan is that learning cursive requires a student to slow down, before they can speed up. Cursive handwriting is much more fluid than print and requires less picking up and putting down of the pencil, thus allowing a faster rate of writing once it is mastered. This mastery requires a learning curve, and during this learning curve, things are slow. It requires consistent exposure and practice on a daily basis. It will not be successful if the entire team is not doing their part on a regular basis. This means, the teacher must be using it, the parent as well as the therapist. I have seen magnificent results with teaching cursive to children with handwriting issues, but we must honestly assess whether the child can afford to slow down before speeding up, and also determine  if everyone involved is on-board during the process.

Insert the problem here, in the fast paced educational culture that has developed in recent years, kids are not afforded the luxury of the time to “slow down to speed up”. They must keep up in class or the miss vital instructional materials. The pressure on children these days to “perform” is like never before. How can we ask them to slow down when the rest of the class is running? It is a slippery slope, and one maybe I will write about later.

Therefore, this brings me to my OLD SCHOOL tricks! I am warning you now that  you will not believe how simple these are, or how often they are overlooked in the classroom. (Hey, no knocking on teachers here, because they can’t possibly teach the four thousand and one things in a day that they are asked to do, Super-Teacher couldn’t do it, and they are doing the best that they can!) So what are these techniques?

#1. Margin Use

Yeah-that red line you see on both sides of the page! Re-teach your child this concept. Remind them not to write over the lines. Teach them to stop and think about if that word will fit in the space left before the margin, and if not, move to the next line if that word will not fit in the leftover space. This requires the child think before he writes.

#2. Skip Lines

It is okay! It may use more paper, but it will save you the cost of a headache pill or reading glasses, and it may improve the student’s grade. So, highlight every other line if necessary at first, then wean off this after skipping lines becomes a habit.

#3. Finger Space

Yeah, that cool thing attached to your hand that never comes off…that finger. Use it! You do not need a fancy “spacer” sold at teaching supply stores to teach this concept. You simply instruct the student to put his finger directly behind the last word he wrote and put the point of the pencil down on the other side of that finger to begin writing the next word. Voila, instant spacing! Eventually, the finger will no longer be needed, as the student begins to recognize visually how much space between words is adequate. This technique does take time and practice to become ingrained, but when used consistently for a short period, it soon becomes ingrained.

All of the above techniques do require cues and practice to ensure success.  I have found it helpful to post a visual cue card on the desktop, with an occasional point to it from a teacher, parent or therapist, may be all it takes to remind the child non-verbally, to use these three techniques.

I know that it is hard to believe that these three really old school techniques can make such a difference in the overall legibility of a child’s handwriting without changing a single thing about letter formation; but I have seen it repeatedly in my experience with children in the school system over the last 10 years.

Try it today, come back, and let me know what you find. :-)


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