5 Handwriting Helpers for Older Students
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog
To describe the challenge of teaching (or reteaching) handwriting to older children as a tug-of-war is an understatement!
Unfortunately, they have learned so many ineffective habits that their motor memory for handwriting resists any changes. When a young guy or gal resists a try at slanting the paper and says, “But, I write better with my paper straight up and down” when, in fact, his or her handwriting is illegible…well, that’s just a natural response to the pull on an ingrained motor memory. And messy, unreadable handwriting may appear to be simply the result of a student’s rushing through his work; but, in fact, it can be due to handwriting skills that have not been fully developed and the inability of the writer to produce fluent and automatic letter formations.
Steve Graham, during his tenure as a Curry Ingram Professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbuilt University, authored an enlightening article, “Want to Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting.” In this report, he shares research that indicates that while most people’s handwriting becomes fluid and automatic, “researchers do not yet know when most youngsters reach this point, but it does not appear to be during the early elementary years. In grades 4 to 6, handwriting fluency still accounts for 42 percent of the variability in the quality of children’s writing and students’ handwriting speed continues to increase at least until grade 9.” With that said, it is definitely not too late to tug on the motor memories of older students!
So, how do we do that, you say? I’ve put together 5 starting points to lay the groundwork for improving handwriting skills of older children.
It’s important to remember one very significant point here: If a child is struggling with handwriting in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade, then chances are that there is an underlying cause that has more to do with vision or cognitive skills than with sitting down at a desk and reproducing the letter “c” 4-5 times per line! Hence, it is important to seek some advice from your child’s doctor, as well as an occupational therapist who is trained in handwriting skill assessment and remediation.
OK, NOW THAT WE HAVE THAT OUT OF THE WAY…
1. First, I cannot stress enough the importance of appropriate body and paper positioning!
As we age, we develop our own “style” of sitting posture. This is actually a result of the seating arrangements we’ve been exposed to, as well as the physical strengths that we have acquired, throughout the first years of our lives. Posture – “shoulders back, back straight, and eyes forward” – is not a luxury and should be taught early in a child’s educational experience. Good posture provides students with the tools they need to utilize rhythm and movement to produce fluid handwritng strokes. We can only help them to learn the correct posture if we provide them with the appropriate chair and desk heights that address their individual needs.
Once we have positioned the body effectively, we need to align the writing surface efficiently to allow for a smooth, legible handwriting style. A slightly slanted paper provides right-handed writers with the ease of gliding across the paper, while it also lessens the chance for left-handed writers to smudge their work.
2. Now we can focus on the “reinvention of the pencil grip!”
Children with weak muscles in their upper extremities have often adapted to that by grabbing hold of the pencil for dear life and pushing it into the paper! Some have no idea that their grip is too loose and are frequently having to pick the pencil up off the floor as it “seems to fall out of my hand all of the time!” I’d like to say that all you need to do is to find the right adaptive pencil grip. HOWEVER, I’m not going to say that because then we would be jumping to a Bandaid fix before we address the underlying cause of the problem.
Learning a new hobby is fun, too!
Learning a new hobby is fun, too!
As with any other muscle development program, exercises that are designed to address specific muscle groups are the foundational elements of a fitness plan. I’ve learned over the years that older students tend to follow through on a program if it interests them! A fine-motor exercise program can include art projects, music practice, gardening tasks, and sports practice. Once you have their interest, then you can offer strengthening activities such as modeling clay, finger strengthening exercises for guitar skills, arm and hand exercises to enhance their baseball game, or hand strengthening activities for gardening tasks. They won’t even know they are working on grip strength!
3. But what about those “gross” ways that some children hold their pencils?
It is important to look at the practical side of things. Not all pencil grasping patterns are created equal. Some are efficient even if they are, well, ugly! So, as they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, if the students are experiencing handwriting challenges, and their preferred grip appears to be one of the culprits, then it is definitely important to address it.
A tripod grasp is reasonably comfortable for most writers. The pencil is held between the thumb and index finger, resting on the middle finger about an inch from the pencil point. (Left-handed writers should hold their pencil back a bit further from the tip to encourage an appropriate wrist position.) One of the ways that I encourage the switch to this grip is by challenging my older students to tuck a cotton ball into the palm of their hand and to hold it there with their ring and little fingers. This reminds them to keep those fingers OUT OF THE WAY while it strengthens the motor memory for a tripod grasp. They can use a penny or small eraser, too.
4. Give them lots of movement and sensory experiences.
Get their eyes moving with challenging games like tether ball. Hang a soft ball from the ceiling on a string, any size from 5-10″ around, positioned at eye level. They can practice precision eye movements by “keeping their eye on the ball” while tapping it up or sideways in controlled patterns.
The Vision Tracking Tube is a fun challenge for older students!
Sensory activities, such as kneading bread dough, planting in the garden, jumping and reaching in basketball, or running and reaching in tennis, combine movement, vision, and proprioception to enhance fine motor skills.
Visualization is an essential skill for the automatic reproduction of letters and words. Drawing letter formations in the air, identifying those that are “written” on your back, or “blind writing” (drawing letters, numbers, or pictures with your eyes closed) are fun visualization activities. And even older students can enjoy using finger paints to practice letter formations, drawing letters in shaving cream, or finding the hidden beads in putty! Believe me, even the adults enjoy that!
5. Finally, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
No, not by pulling out a worksheet and attempting to reproduce a perfect letter time after time. (I’m not sure any of us can actually do that!) But, encourage creative writing with ideas that also practice their handwriting. Journals, poems, stories, newspaper articles, and letters to relatives are wonderful (and useful) ways to provide meaningful opportunities for older students to practice and hone their handwriting skills. And Cursive Clubs have begun to spring up all over as fun ways to turn handwriting skills from Practiced to Functional!
So, what do you think? Willing to give it a try? I would love to hear your tricks for older students and your feedback!
As always, thanks for reading and I hope to see you again soon!
(1) Graham, Steve. “Want To Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting.” American Educator 2009-2010 Winter (2010): 20+. Http://orbida.org/resources/events/GRAHAMHANDWRITING.PDF. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://orbida.org/resources/events/GRAHAMHANDWRITING.PDF>.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
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1 Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice or the professional judgement of health care professionals in evaluating and treating patients. The author encourages the reader to review and verify the timeliness of information found on supporting links before it is used to make professional decisions. The author also encourages practitioners to check their state OT regulatory board/agency for the latest information about regulatory requirements regarding the provision of occupational therapy via telehealth.