Middle School ANd Handwriting—Part 1 of 2
So many parents lose hope for improving their child’s handwriting after elementary school. It definitely can seem hopeless at times. How do you change a habit that has been developed over so many years? There’s always the old “kids don’t need to write anymore; they can just type.”
But seriously, that’s not realistic. Everyone needs to be able to write legibly. Even if it’s a quick note, a shopping list, or an address. How many times do you just need to jot something down?
A lot. Working in a middle school, I learned many different tips and tricks for improving legibility. So I’ve decided to share them with you.
Please believe me—there IS hope for improving legibility after elementary school. I swear.
Pencil Grip—Forget About It?
It is very, very hard to change a poor pencil grip after the first grade. On top of that, it gets harder each year after first grade. By middle school, it is practically impossible. The only way to change a child’s grip after the first/second grade is if the child is willing and motivated. If not, you really have to consider if it’s worth the fight. I am a huge advocate for correcting grip and pencil habits in little ones because I have seen the repercussions of neglect.
Children who don’t hold their pencils correctly sometimes use the wrong muscles to write. When writing, the thumb should be doing most of the work. If you notice that the thumb isn’t even moving or bending at all, it isn’t doing any of the work.
Some kids are able to compensate by having the other fingers move the pencil. Others (worst case scenario) are still relying on their wrist and shoulder because they haven’t developed shoulder stability. This habit should be gone by the end of kindergarten.
So… back to middle school and handwriting. The problem with a middle schooler using larger muscles (whole arm and wrist) to write is that it is incredibly tiring. Think about how hard it is to hold your arms up in the air (in a T) for a whole minute. This is how your middle schooler feels. Now add common core and all the writing. Yikes. The result? One-word answers, the shortest sentences possible, and no data in your Document Based Questions (DBQs). Middle schoolers are expected to back up their answers with “text-based evidence.”
This means detail, information, and in other words–effort. Can you put forth effort and motivation when you are exhausted? Me neither. Middle School and Handwriting: What to do… As I said before, if your child isn’t motivated or willing (or bribable) to change their grip, it probably won’t happen. They will find ways to compensate down the road, which is good news. As an Assistive Technology professional, I think it’s great that children have access to computers, iPads, smartphones, etc. As a Handwriting Specialist, it makes me worried. In life, you need to be able to jot a note, make a list, etc. But, technology is the wave of the future, and you better get on board or be left in the dust. (That is my two sides fighting with each other.)
When They Aren’t Motivated
So if they aren’t motivated, and they aren’t giving their best work because that involves too much writing, find another way. Let them type their essays–notice I said, “let THEM type.” I know that parents are only trying to help, but kids need to do as much for themselves as possible.
First, even if they are only using one hand or one finger, they are gaining keyboard awareness. Trust me, in a few years, they will be moving much faster.
Second, typing is awesome fine motor work. If they are using more than one hand or one finger, they are developing the ability to move one finger at a time! This would have been developed in Kindergarten if they had been holding their pencil properly.
Oh well. If your child truly isn’t capable of typing all their work, make a deal. Set the timer for ten minutes and have them type. (It doesn’t matter if they type one sentence.) Then you can help and type the rest. Next week–eleven minutes. You get the picture.
When They ARE Motivated
If they are motivated and willing, have them use a slant board to write on. This will put their wrist in extension (bent upward), which promotes finger movement. You can give them a pencil grip if they are willing to use it. Sometimes kids will use it because it is novel and anything new is cool.
Awesome. If that is the case with your kid, change the color of the grip every week to keep them motivated. It will take a few months before they can begin to break their pencil grasp habit. Many children get frustrated because using a slant board and/or a grip takes longer.
This is because they are using smaller muscles, making more precise movements. Sometimes this makes messier handwriting at first because these tiny hand muscles aren’t used to writing. However, sometimes it leads to neater handwriting because your Speedy Gonzalez who hates writing and just wants to be done needs to slow down in order to get anything on the paper. You know your child. You need to pick your battles and focus on what is really important. But my advice is to really try. With a motivated kid, amazing things can happen. If they are really trying and get tired, give them a break and go back to it. That’s ok. They are training for a marathon. It takes time to gain endurance.
Letter Formation: Is there hope in Middle School?
Not really. This is another reason why I am such an advocate for proper handwriting instruction for preschool and kindergarten. I once had a kindergarten teacher say to me “but it’s kindergarten.” This was because I was letting a child’s mom know that the child was making the lowercase letter “a” incorrectly and to please remind her at home.
(This sounds so Type A of me. However, it is part of my job to try to get parents to follow through with what the teachers are teaching all day long. Many parents have absolutely no idea if their child is forming letters correctly. That’s OK–they have an OT in the building who will gladly keep them posted.) In my defense, the child had two lowercase a‘s (Anabella) in her name. She had already been doing the letter in class and in her workbook with her classmates.
Plus writing it ten times a day on the top of her worksheets. Is it a big deal? No. Is it correct? No. If a child isn’t corrected and taught the correct formation, that’s it. They will not magically wake up in the sixth grade and write this letter differently. (In fairness, the kindergarten teacher had been in “kindergarten land” for a long time, and has probably never seen the ramifications down the road of letting little things slide.)
If I can read it when she is in the sixth grade, I don’t care. But, if that child is now so comfortable that she is writing quickly and her letter “a” looks like an “o l”, then I care! This will impact her on a spelling test, job interview forms, writing an address on an envelope, etc. So, I will make the effort to let a parent know if their 5-year-old child needs a little practice with something. Some habits are really tough to break. Of course, Kindergarten used to be all about “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” That was before Common Core. The “writing” part has definitely slipped in the ranks!
So how do you make it easier to read?
So here is the good news. There is still hope. I worked with Middle School Special Ed Children for about five years. Most of them had classifications of Learning Disabled, Speech and Language Impairments, and Other Health Impaired. Many of them had very poor handwriting. Most of them did want neater writing, but really disliked writing (because it was hard). So, rather than focus on letter formation, directionality, and other habits that are very hard to break, I focused on the things that I could change.
1) Change the paper
One of the most successful accommodations for my children in middle school with poor handwriting was to change the paper. Usually, this meant giving them Narrow Ruled or College-lined loose-leaf paper. Many parents and teachers are baffled by this.
“They can barely write as it is… now you are making it smaller?”
YES. Less room means less mess. Smaller lines can mean smaller letters. This is especially true for children who have visual-motor issues. Many of them automatically adapt their letter sizing to fit in between the smaller lines. This also limits those “extra” lines and “tails” on some of the letters. When you give them the paper, teach them to skip lines.
Although this may seem “immature” to skip lines when writing, it really improves legibility. If you need to, you can highlight every other line for a while, or put an “x” or a dot to help your children see which line to go to next. Trust me, it really does make it easier to read. My favorite “narrow-lined” paper is Handwriting Without Tears Double Line Narrow Paper. It already has big spaces in between the lines.
Handwriting Without Tears Narrow Lined Paper is my favorite…
Then try to help them space.
Even if the letters in a word are messy, if one word is separate from another, it is automatically easier to read. So, once your student has learned to decrease the size of their writing, you can work on spacing. You can try using graph paper (one letter per box, two spaces per space, etc.) There is also specific “spacing paper” that looks like looseleaf with tiny lines to help you space each letter. You can buy it at staples or office max. It’s called RediSpace Transitional Paper by Mead. There is actually a green margin on the left and a red “stop” sign at the right. Some children who have difficulty adhering to the margin may benefit from the color.
Redispace paper has “start” and “stop” margins and dashed to separate letters
Middle school children may feel “too old” to finger space, but you can give them a popsicle stick or even have them use a pencil to space in between their words. Another great trick is to use the Post-it® Page Markers as a spacer. It is sticky so the kids can move it just like they would with a popsicle stick or their finger. However, it is more “mature” looking for your very “cool” teens who could never be seen using their fingers. I have found that once they start writing smaller, they seem to space better. Like I said, most children “want” neat handwriting. So when they see that something helps, they become motivated. I think that is why the “College lined” paper helps with spacing.
This is what Meade Redispace paper looks like. Sometimes it works wonders.
INFORMATIVE ARTICLE, THANKS. I HAVE A RISING 9TH GRADER WHO SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE BECAME ONE WHO WRITES SMALL, SOMEWHAT ILLEGIBLE, MISSHAPEN LETTERS. IT’S AS IF IT APPEARS HE RUSHED. AS ONE WHO LOVES WORDS, READING & WRITING (ME), EEK!
ALSO A RISING 4TH GRADER, LEFT HANDED, WITH A NEAT HANDWRITING (HIS TEACHER CAN SOMETIMES NOT TELL WHEN IT’S HIS WRITING OR HERS ON PAPERS), BUT HAND SEEMS TO TIRE EASILY + LITTLE GUY HAS A WRITING BUMP ON LEFT RING FINGER HE HATES 🙁 AND WANTS TO GET RID OF….NOT SURE HOW TO HELP HIM, PERHAPS CHANGING HIS GRIP?
ANY SUGGESTIONS WOULD BE HELPFUL. THANKS!
I will email you with suggestions.
As a fellow lefty and now a teacher, I had beautiful handwriting and a very healthy callus on my middle finger casued by a death grip on my pencil.
A squishy pencil grip helps, as to pens/pencils with a wider barrel (Papermate PhD. series.)
An OT friend taught me to teach students to hold a cotton ball, bead, or a scrap of paper in the palm of the hand to help relax the hand when writing. Help your son to realize that he’s holding his pencil too tightly and this causes fatigue. Demonstrate by showing how you can easily pull the pencil out of your hand but not his.
Awesome post!! Love your perspective on this and I totally agree – teaching new habits in middle school can be close to impossible. Best to start them on the right track when they’re younger! 🙂
Thanks so much Claire!
My stepson, who is in 7th grade, has atrocious handwriting. Spacing is fine and he keeps letters within the lines, but he writes very tiny and has malformed letters (his d’s look like upside down question marks; a’s look like u’s). I’ve considered purchasing “handwriting without tears,” but since we would have to go all the way back to learning letter formation, I’m not sure how motivated he would be. This problem is affecting all subject areas (including math) as writing is illegible. I’m not sure if he would do better if taught cursive or if I should stick with printing. Any suggestions you could provide would be most appreciated!
Hi Angela, Thanks for writing! It is very hard to change handwriting habits by the 7th grade. If the child is not motivated, it’s even worse. Have you thought of Assistive Technology? He may qualify if his teachers can’t read any of his work? That would be my suggestion, although I haven’t met him.
I think your ideas are awesome. Just shared this. Lots of older kids with handwriting issues that have not been addressed or corrected and Lots of flabbergasted
parents probably happy to see this post !!!
Thank you so much, Linda!
DO you have any suggested AT or Apps for Math? I am an OT and I have several kids who’s handwriting is so bad, the teacher can’t read their math work and don’t know how they derived their answer? Ive already suggested use of graph paper.
Hi Erica! That’s a great question. I haven’t used AT for Math up to this point. I know there are many apps that have “write to text” features” though. I use One Note, which is a digital notebook, similar to Evernote. You can change the paper (to lined, or graph) and then write with a stylus. When you are done, you can click on write to text, and it changes your scribbles to text. I use it when observing an entire class of Kindergartners and believe me, I’m scribbling frantically. It works pretty well. After I hit Write to text, I hit undo, in case it didn’t copy correctly. With one note, you can enter each problem in a text box, so you can change one problem at a time to make sure it’s accurate.
Jaime, thank you for these tidbits My son is in 6th grade and has ADHD. He writes fast, lopsided, and LARGE. I’m glad you had suggested using college ruled paper. He is able to use his Chromebook for essays, which he loves, but now his teacher is letting him stick to printing the rest of his homework. Not good if you ask me, so I’m having him practice at home. Do you think pens with the cushion by the tip would help?
Hi Laura! Thanks for reading! I love college ruled paper but if you are still looking for some improvement in sizing, I would check out narrow ruled paper… Look at the link from the post, you can print a bunch of different kinds of paper for free to check them out. As far as a specific kind of pen, I think it depends on WHAT specifically you want the pen to do? I think the paper will have a bigger impact than the pen at this age…
Hi Laura! I would try the writing window instead- it contains the writing to a set area- forcing children to write smaller (if they physically can).
Although your suggestions of Assistive Technology are good “adaptations”, what do you suggest for the long-term. As mentioned in the post, as adults, these children will need to jot notes, sign checks, address envelopes and fill out job applications. We’ve tried printing out samples of all of these to encourage our 8th grader to practice. We also have using grid paper as an option for writing assignments as it is smaller and easier to see. He insists as long as he can read his writing, it’s no big deal. Maybe I’m just venting, but is there any specific writing practice pages you suggest? Any printouts for handwriting practice are geared to elementary students so it’s all much larger than “normal” printing for middle schoolers.
HI Jennifer! Thank you so much for reading. I understand your frustration. I’m not sure of the exact situation with your 8th grader, but most handwriting companies and websites come in a “one size fits all” after 3rd or 4th grade. Meaning, even an 8th grader can practice with the last/smallest practice pages. If you are looking to practice actual letter formation, I would check out a handwriting workbook (like Zaner Bloser). They make a 6th grade “maintenance” book. Here’s the link. https://www.zaner-bloser.com/zaner-bloser-handwriting-practice-masters I do want to let you know, though, that Assistive Technology IS an option for Long Term. Technology is spiraling downward into the grades, even kindergarteners are using IPADS in class. Chances are that your 8th grader will fill out his job application on a tablet. That is not to say that I think Handwriting isn’t important. I think it is VERY important. If your child is willing to practice and improve, that is awesome. But If not, I would emphasize keyboarding skills as much as possible to give him that advantage. Stay tuned for Middle School and Handwriting part 2… I hope that helps!
Do you know of an app or website that demonstrates the letter formation over and over for review on the fly? Like a little video when that letter is selected?
Hi Jenifer. Most handwriting apps can be set to work on specific letters. If you go to the settings, you can set it to work on just the letter A, or just ABC, etc. I use “I write words” and I always set it up to work on the letter of the week.
Do you know of an app or website that will show a short video or clip of how to form the letter on demand? So when the student is writing and forgets of to make a certain letter, he can just refer to that?
yes, CallOTChrissy on YouTube has a whole set of letter formation videos.
I’m a school psychologist in a middle school. The requests for evaluations for handwriting concerns has skyrocketed. Of course, special education would not address handwriting solely, so off I went to find handwriting interventions. This article has the best information I’ve been able to find. Can’t wait for part 2. Thank you!
Thank you so much Kimberly! I’m glad you found them helpful!
Hi! Do u have a facebook page to like? Thank you
Hi! Yes, It’s https://www.facebook.com/MissJaimeOT/
Do you have research/references for the ages that handwriting is “mature”. I’m an OT with over 25 years in public schools and I know up that what you say is accurate however most research I find says maturity comes in third or fourth grade and some even fifth. To many parents it appears we are “giving up” on their children. Some research would be helpful.
Thank you for your post. It was very helpful!
Hi Becky! Thanks for reading. Not off the top of my head. Have you tried looking at AOTA’s website for the research? I, like you, have just been going with my experience and using what works for me and my students.
I have worked in Middle School/High School for 16 years. Changing handwriting habits is next to impossible, as you say. At this time they are half way (or more) through their academic programs and the demands on their time & energy need to be focused on getting school work done. Most computer devices have easily accessible and free speech-to-text programs that can solve the handwriting issue, but NOT the writing issue. Kids still need to edit. Learning to use speech-to-text is my go-to strategy if legibility is the issue. HOWEVER, that only works in writing…. not math. Legibility in math is still critical and kids get that they need to form a 7 to look like a 7, not a 9 or their answer will be marked wrong. In writing the teacher can figure out legibility based on context… not so with math. I always check w/ Math teachers to see if they have had to mark student down because of illegible numbers.
Thank you so much for writing this. I am an OT in the school system and I constantly get handwriting referrals, including middle school and high school students. You have expressed what I constantly find myself explainging to teachers and parents. If they want to see improvement, it will come from consistent modification of paper and writing space while also improving the student’s awareness of letter size, spacing, and overall expectations. Sometimes this also requires modification of work load or assignments, presence of a visual model, visual cues for organization, etc. OT’s are not magic and working with us for a small part of their academic week will not lead to an overall improvement in handwriting at this age. The teachers hold the real power when they incorporate these modifications and strategies into daily educational tasks that all the other students are completing.
You are welcome, Ann! I totally agree. Once a week for thirty minutes can’t change a habit that has been established for years. carry over into the classroom is the only hope!
HI I too am an OT in publics schools for 31 years now.
One option to improve writing without being a hard nose about it is to tell the student you are picking a couple of letters each week that have to be written correctly on everything written, notes worksheets papers etc. Then when reviewing the work, points are given if those particular letters are are legible and neat. The next week add two more letters to the list. This gives kids a fighting chance to improve the work a bit at a time. It doesn’t seem so daunting and there is that motivating factor of earning a new pair of sneakers or that movie they want to see or the pizza party or whatever fits.
You said it correctly Miss Jaime. The only things that will truly improve a middle schoolers poor writing habits are practice and motivation. When a teacher marks down a student for illegibility of the work, it is very frustrating for the student but even this is not always enough to motivate a student to want to improve. I have heard them scream. ” that’s not fair. I can’t do it any better.” When they say this I have to say I agree with them. It is unfair because someone really should have addressed poor writing habits way back in kindergarten. So little time is devoted to developing legible writing in kindergarten and first grade because these teachers are being asked to teach everything else on the planet, and frankly some of these teachers were never taught themselves. It is absolutely crucial that good practices are, well, practiced from the time a student begins writing. While this is not a solution for those folks asking about how to repair writing skill in middle school, it can be a solution to prevent more horrible looking, difficult to correct papers and very frustrated and upset parents, students and teachers.
Its up to you frustrated teachers, students, parents and school OTs to make school administrators and school board members look at the bigger picture. Learning good writing skills now will save time later. I promise you it will. Give kindergarten and first grade teachers 10-15 minutes a day every day to teach how to write, not what to write. Teach everything from how to sit and hold a pencil to where to begin a letter and which way a circular stroke should go. And dear kindergarten teachers, please actually watch how kids are completing those handwriting worksheets. You can’t correct letter formation errors if you don’t see them happening.
OK I seem to be up on a soap box but I’m just saying if you want good handwriting you MUST teach it correctly from the start. We OTs have no magic dust to sprinkle on those kids who have had hours and hours to practice all the bad things we see in some of the worse middle school handwriting.. Tell the school board you want future generations to be able to write like Grandma used to do. It’ll be worth it.
Thank you so much for this post, Martha Thomas! You feel my pain! lol
Miss Jaime, you are spot on. I have been talking to Kinder teachers and anyone who will listen. Proper letter formation must be taught. Otherwise, kids are just “drawing” the letters. I see the problem starting in our Head start Programs. They give the kids a copy of their name and say “here, write this”. I also find teachers are accepting worse and worse handwriting, until they get into the upper grades and then “help, can you fix this”.
I completely agree! It’s so important to start off on the right foot, handwriting habits are hard to change. Thanks for reading!
Couldn’t agree more with all of this. As a Montessori teacher we implore new and future parents to invest as much as they can afford to their child’s early education. Despite my own sons Montessori education, and so much pin pricking! The now 3rd and 5th graders have borderline handwriting skills. Mostly it is due to rushing to just be DONE with homework but feel their skills are waning and not building. Additionally, much of their work is done on smartboards and ipads so not gettin as much practice in handwriting. Do you have any advice or works that can be done to improve or return them to the attention of handwriting? Was thinking of getting them calligraphy sets to make their writing fun and different! They can choose their quill, ink color, the sensorial scrape of the tip against paper… thoughts?
I think that’s an awesome idea!
Good points really impressed, this would definitely help students Thanks for sharing the significant information. It helped me and will help others a lot. Nice.. …
I’m an adult (27), and I’d like to improve my handwriting. Is it possible at my age? I’m guessing it won’t be easy if it’s hard even in middle school, but I am motivated to change if it’s possible.
Oh my gosh…THANK YOU for this!! It’s 8:30 at night and I’m still up at school writing IEP’s and took a break to look up handwriting stuff for some of my kids after unearthing a note I’d written myself a month ago.
This was great content and so helpful. Now if I’m not a walking zombie tomorrow, I’ll try to implement some of these strategies. And if not, there’s always the next day!
Thanks again!! :0)