How to Improve Horrendous Handwriting When All Hope Is Lost


When I first learned that I was getting hired in the district where I currently work, I was beyond thrilled. A school district job!  It’s like winning the lottery!

Then I heard the rest…

I would be split between two schools.

Okay…I can live with that.

Two MIDDLE schools.  Teenagers.  

Umm, I’m not sure I can live with that!

I can still remember the creep of red crawling up my neck as I answered the principal on the phone. “Great! Looking forward to it!”

handwriting and middle school

Like squinting at the sun!

A million scenarios ran through my head- Will they listen to me?  What if they’re rude? I’m so used to the little kiddos – will I be able to do it?  Butterflies were flying wildly in my stomach.  Self-doubt had totally set in. 

But to tell you the truth – I loved it. The kids were great. Teenagers are just big kids, full of laughter and good-natured mischief.

What really did stink? All the Handwriting. Oh, the handwriting.   

Reading messy handwriting is seriously torturous.  Like… comparable to squinting at the sun.

Handwriting Challenges continue in Middle School  

Children with handwriting difficulties are becoming more and more common. Handwriting continues to decline in importance in our school curriculum, and many elementary teachers don’t have enough time in their schedules to teach handwriting properly. Handwriting instruction is often abandoned in the classroom after first grade. But it’s still important.


So what about handwriting in middle school?

Middle school teachers are stuck with the task of finding ways to increase legibility. After third or fourth grade, it is very hard to change handwriting habits, especially if the student isn’t motivated.

I have a trick for that.

There is hope, though. I promise. Today  I’m sharing some more of my favorite Occupational Therapy tips and tricks to help increase legibility. Be sure to check out the Middle School Part 1 post for more information.

How to Work on Handwriting in Middle School

1. Get Them Writing

First, you need to get the kids writing. As an Occupational Therapist in a middle school, many of my students had handwriting goals.

The kids would groan and moan the minute I would introduce a handwriting task—usually something that they were already doing for class, such as writing definitions or copying vocabulary.

Here’s what I discovered: 

It was too time-consuming to “find” a handwriting activity for them to do in their backpack. I wanted it to be a permanent part of our OT sessions, so I decided to design my OT sessions just their academic classes:

In my middle school, kids come into an academic class like Science or Math, copy their “Do Now” (a math problem or notes on the board) and begin working.  This limits socializing and gets the kids right into working.

I decided to set up my OT sessions the exact same way:

Kids come into OT and copy their “Do Now” (which is basically a paragraph).  Every day.  This way, I was able to eliminate the whole:

“I don’t wanna do handwriting….”  

“Can’t we play something?”

“Can we do something else?”

“No. This is our routine. We need to work on writing, and this is how we do it.”

Make Handwriting Part of the Daily Routine

You can use books of interesting facts, short excerpts from that day’s news, writing prompts, or seasonal information to get them writing. Get vocabulary lists from the children’s teachers in advance.

This would also be a good routine for Resource Room teachers who want to work on handwriting (or keyboarding). Research shows that handwriting is a good predictor for the quality and length of written compositions (Baker, Gersten, & Graham, 2003).  This makes sense because if kids dislike writing, they will write less, leave out details, and offer less complex answers.

It’s important to find ways to keep handwriting in the routine.  Get them writing.


2. Incorporate Near Point and Far Point Copying

Most teachers don’t realize that copying from the board (far point) and copying from a paper at their desk (near point) are two very different skills. Far-point copying is often more difficult. That can be due to different reasons.

Children with attention issues get distracted as they change their gaze from the board to the paper.  Also, there is a sensory component in changing the position of the head from a vertical position to a horizontal position.  It can also be due to difficulty with visual perception.

If you have a student who can copy near point but has trouble with far point, you can use a “Page up” or a Vertical Page stand.  This brings the information closer but still incorporates the “changing of the head position” component.  Then you can gradually move the stand away, use a classroom easel, etc.

Handwriting and Middle School can be complicated.  

3. Change up the Fonts

Kids need to learn how to read different fonts. Children who have difficulty with visual perceptual activities often have trouble recognizing different fonts. One strategy that Special Education teachers use to help children with reading and copying is using a very basic easy-to-read font such as Times New Roman or Arial.

This is a great strategy when the focus of the activity is something other than copying or handwriting.

However, when the focus of the activity is to improve handwriting and copying skills, it’s a good idea to change up the fonts. Often.

Sometimes, children struggle with handwriting due to poor visual perceptual skills. Reading different fonts can be difficult at first, but it can help visual skills like closure, figure-ground, and form constancy. Check out this awesome post by my pal Cindy over at Your Kids OT about visual perception and handwriting.

So, make up a “Do Now” paragraph for kids to copy either near point or far point. Use different fonts so your students can learn how to read various typefaces. A classroom teacher could easily change the font on the smartboard or their class notes page to achieve the same goal.

4. Incorporate Editing in Handwriting

Once the kids get used to copying every day, you can start to work on other skills.  You can change the “Do Now” paragraph to work on multiple skills.

1. Add punctuation errors such as missing capitals, extra periods
2. Use run-on sentences
3. Make grammatical errors
4. Use incorrect spacing and letter size

You name it. The kids need to copy it properly (not copying the errors). Depending on the capabilities of the class, you can work on one thing at a time or multiple goals at once.

A simple, easy-to-use checkoff list for kids to self-check their handwriting. Print yours for free!

5. Use a Handwriting Checklist

A simple checklist is a great resource for getting kids to take responsibility for their own work.  You can print multiple copies and give each child one to check off every day, or you can laminate one copy and give the kids a dry erase marker to check off each bullet as they complete a work check. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when I buy the skinny dry erase markers (not a fan of large writing utensils) in different colors, the kids actually enjoy using them to check off the boxes. You can make your own checklist or download mine for free here.


6. Use a Reading Ruler

A reading ruler can help children to stay online when writing (and reading).  It blocks out the rest of the page which eliminates visual distractions for kids who get overwhelmed by too much on a page. It can also help get kids to write on the lines of the paper.

Just a heads up: Kids who have difficulty with bilateral coordination (using two hands together) may have trouble holding the reading ruler steady while writing with the other hand. These kids also have trouble using a ruler to draw a straight line. 

7. Try a Writing Window


Like a reading ruler, a writing window can help a child to write within a set section of the page. This can help with math.  Many children with handwriting difficulties also don’t organize their information properly on the page.   Graph paper or graphic organizers give visual boundaries, but writing windows can be helpful to get kids to write their work within a set area.


Like a reading ruler, it can also help children to write on the lines.  I like to just use a manila folder.  Use a box cutter or scissors to cut the window to the exact size you want.  Cheap and effective – perfect for a budget diva like me.

8. Try a Letter Finder

If you have a child who consistently makes a certain letter wrong, you can try using a letter checker with them.  To make a “letter checker”,  just use a hole puncher to make a hole in the middle of an index card.  Then have the student place the hole over each letter to see if it actually looks like the letter.  Sometimes it can be really tough to tell what a letter is without all the writing around it.

As I wrote in “Middle School & Handwriting—Part 1”, sometimes you just need to increase the child’s awareness about what is making their work so messy.

9.  Bribe Them to Write Neatly

Just kidding.  Kind of.

Most big kids want to do well just as much as the little ones.  They may just need something to motivate them.  A simple reward chart can work wonders if a kid really wants something.  Sometimes you need to get parents involved- especially when the child wants to earn money.  But many parents are willing to get involved if they think it might help!

Make a simple reward chart, or you can download mine here for free!



10. Use graph paper for math and handwriting.

Graph paper lends itself to aligning handwriting, and it is fabulous for math problems. It doesn’t have to be this particular brand—any brand will do.  If you don’t have graph paper on hand, Excel has a template for graph paper, just click on File ► New and search for “graph paper. The last time I looked, it had three different sizes in one template. Easy peasy! You can also turn regular ruled looseleaf paper sideways and have the child keep numbers or letters in the proper column.

I hope you’ll try out some of these strategies with your child—they really do work! Squinting at the sun isn’t good for anyone. Get them writing with these simple strategies and enjoy the results.

Don’t forget to check out “The Handwriting Book”, a book written by the fabulous “Functional Skills for Kids” team of OTs and PTs.  It’s chockful of resources, activity ideas, and everything you ever needed to know about handwriting! 

Look at all it has to offer:
-The Developmental Progression of Pencil Grasp and Handwriting Strokes
-Fine Motor Skills
-Gross Motor Skills
-Sensory Considerations
-Visual Perceptual Skills
-Tips and Strategies for the Reluctant Writer
-Ideas for Combining Handwriting and Play
-Activities to Practice Handwriting Skills at Home
-Tips for Sizing, Spacing, and Alignment in Written Work
-So much more!

Check it out! Plus, for a limited time, get your free printables:
1) Gross Motor Warm-Ups for Handwriting
2) Tips for the Reluctant Writer
3) Sensory Strategies for Handwriting

 Related Posts:

SnapType Pro #functionalskillsforkids, handwriting

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