Help With Handwriting: A Screening Activity

The month of August brings thoughts of the new school year and a fresh look at how children learn and grow.  With that focus in mind, the Handwriting is Fun! Blog is proud to bring you a series of posts that will share insights from Occupational Therapists that reflect their views on and visions for our students’ learning experiences.  The third article in our series is presented by Lyn Armstrong, OTR/L, and will explore the the process of identifying handwriting struggles early to prevent our students from falling behind in their handwritten work.  I know that you will find her strategy easy to use and an asset to your OT Tool Box!


Help With Handwriting:  A Screening Activity for All Ages

            by Lyn Armstrong, OTR


Handwriting is a very complex task at any age!


If you can picture in your mind a ladder, let’s look at each major rung!  The top rungs of this handwriting ladder are composed of written expression items (spelling, thought organization, punctuation, and sentence/paragraph development).  The middle rungs may be composed of sensory motor items such as visual perception, tactile/proprioception.  The bottom rungs handle fine and gross motor skills.

A student with handwriting difficulties may have problems related to each rung, particular rungs, or multiple rungs in each area.  For example a child with Dyslexia may have different issues affecting the quality of writing than a student with “just fine motor skills” (rare these days).  Illegible handwriting is sometimes called “Dysgraphia”.

Dysgraphia Subtypes (Deuel. Journal of Child Neurology 1995)

Spontaneous written text Oral Spelling Copying Drawing Finger tapping(fine motor)
Dyslexic Dysgraphia Poorly legible with textural complexity influencing legibility Severely abnormal Relatively preserved Relativelypreserved Normal
Dysgraphia due to Motor Clumsiness Poorly legible Relatively preserved Legible or if neat extremely slowly produced compromised abnormal
Dysgraphia due to defect in understanding space Poorly legible preserved Poorly legible abnormal normal


In this chart, you can see that a Dyslexic student’s difficulties center on spelling and textural complexity rather than fine motor skills.  For the observer of a Dyslexic student, the handwriting puzzle may be confusing as one may see the following:

  1. Legible letter formations in handwriting workbooks or sheets
  2. Legible writing with short sentences that are composed of familiar words
  3. Decreased legibility as spelling demands increase
  4. Decreased legibility as spelling, time restraints, reading comprehension, and/or organization is required

If we go back to look at the handwriting ladder, we see that the majority of handwriting issues with a Dyslexic student center in the upper rungs of written expression and not in the lower rungs of fine motor or visual perception.  Therefore it is critical to work on the upper rungs of written expression not necessarily the lower rungs of perception and motor which generally are intact. An occupational therapist though specializing in handwriting may not be as helpful for a Dyslexic student as a Language therapist or a Dyslexic tutor who is more specialized in reading and spelling.

Knowing where the difficulties lie, help determines which professional is needed and which classroom modifications are appropriate.


The first thing to consider with a student who is having writing difficulties is whether or not the student knows the letter names, has attached the letter names to a symbol, and can write that letter (symbol) without thinking about it.  If he can do this, it frees up the mind to concentrate on the aspects of writing sentences, spelling, etc.

A simple screening exercise for grades 1 and higher is mentioned below.  Please remember that this is a screening only!  It should help you determine if the child is visualizing the letters correctly, transitioning quickly from one thought to another (cognitive associative shift), and receiving good input through the sense of touch (tactile) and body movement (proprioceptive).


Screening Procedure: Choose a time when the student is not tired.  Place a piece of blank paper long wise in front of the student.  Have the student write the upper case alphabet in his/her choice of print or cursive with his eyes closed.   Have the student open his eyes to check his work.  Then repeat with the lower case alphabet.  Always praise the student even if done poorly.

As the student writes, make notes of the following:Poor Handwriting Example2

  1. Hesitation on a letter
  2. Difficulty sequencing the alphabet: you may help by giving a letter
  3. Talking out loud as he writes a letter or the sequence

Once finished note the following:

  1. Are the letters placed on an imaginary line? If so, it appears the student knows where his hand is as it moves across the page.  If not, you may want to work on sensory items with the student to help with better sensory input in the hand. Check for pressure: are the letters made very lightly or can you read them from the other side of the page (engraving). Extra pressure can result from poor sensory input or from over concentration on the activity.

Also draw a line across the top of the letters and one under the letters.  The space between these two lines (height of the letters) may be the comfort level of the moving fingers.  Adjust the writing spaces on other papers to be equal to this space. For example, if the letters of a third grade are large like a kindergartener, the student may have trouble writing in the small spaces on a fourth grade workbook or college rule notebook paper.

  1. Are there hesitations with certain letters? We picture the letters as we write in our minds.  The letter as it is being written matches or does not match a letter in our minds.  If a student has trouble visualizing a letter, he will hesitate or say “I don’t remember”. Work on that particular letter.
  2. Can the student write the alphabet sequence without help? This requires writing a letter, remembering where the letter is in the alphabet sequence, picturing the next letter, writing it on the paper and repeating this process.  This takes memory, visual recall, visualization and motor production.  Shifting from one skill to another may be difficult and need extra help.  Processing speed may be slow as well.
  3. Are the letters made top to bottom or bottom to top? If the letters are legible and made bottom to top, this may not need to be corrected.


Lyn Exercise PhotorThe following may be helpful as you scan the student’s papers after you have noted motor, perceptual or sensory issues:

  1. Look at the student’s writing in all subjects. Just because a student has good grades in spelling, one needs to look at the spelling in the context of writing sentences and paragraphs.  One may be able to remember the spelling words in isolation but not when thinking about what to write.  Even look at math papers for number formations, sizes of numbers, ability to write in smaller spaces and written words in word problem solutions.
  2. Look at the spaces the child must write in on the various pages. Some students have a need to completely fill up a space even when writing their name on the top line of the paper. Others who may be insecure with their writing may choose to write very small to disguise errors. Others may have visual perceptual issues!
  3. Check the consistency of line size in various subjects. A child with motor planning difficulties may have difficulty adjusting his motor movements for writing to different sized spaces.  Look for consistency of letter size.  Size can Lyn Poor Handwriting Example1affect in legibility.
  4. Look at where the lines of writing move to across the page: Some prefer to start on the left and move to middle of paper. They slowly pull away from the left side of the paper and start their sentences in the middle of the page indented to almost the middle of the line spaces, making a diagonal pull from the left side.  Modify by moving the left side of the writing page to the body’s midline as it appears these students are more comfortable with their right body space.
  5. Check the color of the paper. Some students with visual perceptual or sensitivity problems write better if the paper is colored which seems to reduce the black/white contrast. Look also at overhead lights to see if they are causing a glare on the paper.
  6. Check the furniture. A too high desk will result in the student laying his head down.  Same for a too low desk.
  7. Check computer skills: Note taking may be faster on a computer.


Truly, handwriting is a complex task!


Lyn Armstrong is a pediatric occupational therapist with 35 plus years of experience living in the Houston area. Her primary focus has been on handwriting which has led to authoring several articles in The International Dyslexic Association Resource Directory and to her book “Alphabet Soup: Stirring Your Child’s Interest in Letters”.  She can be contacted through her website,


Weeks 1 and 2 in the Series:

Learning and Retaining through Technology, by Eleanor Cawley, M.S., OTR/L, on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog
Learning and Retaining through Technology, by Eleanor Cawley, M.S., OTR/L, on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog
Handwriting and Learning: A Vital Link to Skilled Writing, by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L on he Handwriting is Fun! Blog
Handwriting and Learning: A Vital Link to Skilled Writing, by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L on he Handwriting is Fun! Blog

Author: otchic

Hi! I am a pediatric occupational therapist with a passion for handwriting! I have dedicated my practice to the assessment and remediation of children's handwriting skills and the education of teachers and therapists in handwriting development and remedial strategies.

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