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.

It’s bad.

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.)

Who cares?

Good question.

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.

popsicle spacing

A popsicle stick is a great “quick fix” for a spacer


Post it Page markers

These “page markers” from Post-It are my personal favorite

 This is what Meade Redispace paper looks like. Sometimes it works wonders.  

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